Soaring above adversity to empower her community

Story - 2021-04-19
Halima Kahiye, a young female journalist, works in one of the most marginalised and patriarchal regions in the world, overcoming adversity every day to empower her community through information.
Halima Kahiye, the Programmes Manager, Wajir Community Radio.
Halima Kahiye, the Programmes Manager, Wajir Community Radio. Photo: Augustine Karani/ ForumCiv

Born in one of the most marginalised and patriarchal regions in Kenya, Halima Kahiye could not imagine finishing her education, let alone ending up as one of the most progressive female journalists in Northern Kenya. 

Halima serves as the Programme Manager for Wajir Community Radio, one of the premier radio stations in Northern Kenya. The community radio is based in Wajir County and serves parts of Isiolo, Garissa, and Mandera Counties, as well as the Western regions of Somalia.

Information is power, and an informed society is a developed society!

Growing up amidst untold atrocities like the Wagalla Massacre that the United Nations once described as Kenya’s worst form of human rights abuse, Halima kept wondering why such injustices would happen.  

Halima was barely four years old when this massacre happened. As young as she may have been, Halima vividly remembers first seeing a military helicopter coming to pick up their neighbour, an old man and father to her friends. That was the last they saw of him. “We grew up with his children. We went to the same primary schools. However, up to date, they are still yearning for their father’s return,” states Halima.

“As a child, I could not understand why the government took up my neighbour. I could not understand why we were fighting, why the Wagalla Massacre took place and why such atrocities happen,” laments Halima like the many residents of Wajir still haunted by the inescapable traumatic memories. 

Essense of radio in pastoral nomadic communities

After completing her Mass Communication Studies in Nairobi, Halima resolved to go back to Wajir. “I wanted to go back and change my community through information,” states Halima before adding, “Information is power, and an informed society is a developed society!”  

Halima, however, had neither the money nor the adequate resources need to establish a media house or set up an information centre. Her breakthrough came when World Bank supported the set up of Wajir Community Radio to enhance access to information to the many pastoralist communities of Northern Kenya. 

Due to their constant mobility, nomadic pastoralists are likely not to have a place they would consider a permanent home. The search for water and pasture sometimes separates these pastoralists from their communities for months as they travel great distances with their livestock. 

These communities’ very mobile lifestyle is a challenge to conventional schooling as well as limiting their access to information resulting in the region having one of the highest illiteracy levels. Thus, radio is an essential and effective information tool, especially for these communities with low literacy levels and no proper alternatives to vital information.

After the establishment of the Wajir Community Radio, Halima was the first local entrusted to manage the radio, navigating the formidable challenge of actualising the dream. “We had the tough task of programming the radio to respond to community needs, be it governance, human rights democracy or gender equality,” she states.

Over the years, Wajir Community Radio, aired in local vernacular languages including Somali and Borana, has grown immensely as a tool for enhancing access to information and public participation by marginalised communities.

Through partnerships like The Wajibu Wetu Programme since 2016, the Community radio has emerged as an effective instrument for promoting grassroots democracy by airing local issues, providing an alternative source of information to official channels, and reflecting ethnic and linguistic diversity, primarily to marginalised pastoral communities.

“Our motto is we are the Voice of the Voiceless,” states Halima. She further underlines the significant empowering role of the radio in the community. “Wajir Community Radio is strongly perceived by the community as a ‘teacher’ of sorts. The teacher that accompanies you,” she says.

Challenging Operating Environment

Despite the significant progress the radio and Halima have made, it certainly has not been a bed of roses.  “As a woman leading a radio station in a patriarchal society, I became a target,” says Halima. “I have been fought both internally by my colleagues and externally by my community and the government,” she laments.

To make matters worse, as a woman, she managed a team of seven men, most of whom made it very difficult for her in her operations. “I had to fight back, helping my male colleagues realise that in the 21st century world, women place is not merely reserved for the kitchen. Women too can lead!”

General insecurity threat, especially from extremists and interference by the State agents, have been some of the most challenging obstacles for Halima and her team. She and her team were attacked one night in 2013 right after airing an episode creating awareness on devolution, the allocated resources for the counties and what that meant to the ordinary citizen. The County Government almost shut down the radio were it not for the public outcry by activists in the country.

Halima herself lives in constant fear for her safety with many threats thrown her way. “In one night, some hooded men came to the radio asking for my whereabouts,” she states. 
In early 2020, a young student was kidnapped by unknown people who demanded that they be shown the location of Wajir Community Radio. Soon afterwards, a suspicious individual called Halima unconvincingly demanding to know the location of the radio. 
“When it comes to the police, sometimes you cannot even report as they end up harassing you. It is very challenging,” laments Halima.

In 2014, there was a discovery of mass graves in Wajir, which was well covered by the national and international news. Wajir Community Radio was amongst the first media station to visit the incident site and cover this news. This particular action of ensuring access to information put them at a crossroads with the Kenya security apparatus. 

“As soon as we aired the news on the radio, National Intelligence Officers visited the station and subjected us to intense interrogations and harassment,” adds Halima.
“In as much as we are trying to enlighten our people, we still have to deal with several of these obstacles,” states Halima underlying the stark reality of myriad challenges journalists and human rights defenders have to endure in their endeavours. 

Nonetheless, these obstacles have not slowed Halima down. If anything, they have spurred her forward. “As activists, we undergo lots of challenge. Nevertheless, we need to continue the struggle. Be part of the struggle and keep fighting because if we do not fight for these freedoms, who will?” she strongly urges. 

“As a radio station, we cannot just afford to be off-air. When we are off-air, my phone always rings, and I am asked, Halima, we do not know what is happening today!” 

Halima concludes that community radio has been a pivotally important phenomenon because of its ease of access. She adds that it further facilitates the democratisation process and human rights awareness.  “Radio is also powerful means of countering extremism, mediating violent conflicts and building a culture of peace and tolerance,” concludes Halima.

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