The microphone and the mobile phone – social capital in North Kivu

I was standing in front of a blackboard in a classroom in Butembo, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and I was in the midst of a revelation. 

In that classroom were many young men who had just been taking part in a regular Saturday morning call-in program that operated via mobile phone. 

They were telling us about the various activities going on in their communities that had sprung up through what they called Radio Clubs.

All the varied activities they described – from helping people who were in prison, to building benches so people could sit during meetings, to small-scale literacy, microcredit, and environmental schemes – were being done without funding. They weren’t part of any organized program run by a donor. They were spontaneous, locally organized and supported in each small village.

By the time we had finished listing the activities on the blackboard with scratchy chalk, there were something like 80 of them, as I recall. 

This was homegrown ‘social capital’ – the kind of thing that Robert Putnam wrote about in his famous book Bowling Alone, lamenting the decline of interest in social activities that had brought people together to build small town America, but no longer seemed to hold peoples’ interest.

In DRC, especially in North Kivu, which had been riven by conflict in past years, this social capital was self-evidently thriving – even if it was little known outside the area. And as I learned from visits around the area, it manifested itself in many ways, not just in the Radio Clubs. Two villages were trying to generate their own electricity through small scale hydro, for example. People in DRC, despite all the challenges, were behaving like that small town America Putnam had credited with building the USA. Although maybe the African word ubuntu describes it better than the term social capital.

The Radio Clubs had apparently grown from a program once funded by a Scandinavian NGO that bought radios for villages. That program didn’t exist any more, as far as I could tell, but a local NGO, CRC, had found a way to use them to create a unique two-way communication around their remote area.

Each Sunday, from Beni, they would broadcast a program, and people would call in to the mobile phone of the host, who would hold up the phone to the microphone so everyone could hear. And in the villages, people would be gathered around their radio to listen to what was happening in other villages. CRC would share information – about agriculture, for example – and then people would call in to share their information and stories.

And often, having heard about what was going on somewhere else, they decided that they could do that, too – or something else, maybe something they considered better.

For the Saturday program in Butembo, people sometimes travelled for hours by bicycle or bus to get there. They gathered in the studio, which was part of a Catholic educational facility, and they would take calls from all around the area, shared via the host’s mobile phone.

People would ask questions, seek advice, raise problems, share information – it was an amazing two hours of local communication and sharing of grassroots advice and information.

And all because one journalist who had been working with the local diocese had realized the power of a mobile phone combined with a microphone. I asked him how he had come up with the idea and he shrugged, modestly, as if it was not important how it originated – just how it was used. 

I met one man who helped me understand just how valuable those radios were to the villages, even though they were rather big and boxy. The people in his village had been forced to flee when they heard a militia force was coming, quickly seizing whatever they thought was most valuable – seeds, for example. 

For him, he told me as we sat in a circle as the dusk was closing in, it was the radio. He put it on the handlebars of his bicycle and took it with them.

The radio program helped with other things, too. When the CRC program was being evaluated, we asked the radio ‘hosts’ to share three questions. The answers to those questions helped give powerful insights into the behaviour of the militias who lived out in the bush, and suggested approaches for de-escalating conflicts with them.

It has been more than a decade since I realized the presence and power of social capital in the villages of North Kivu. I wonder how those Radio Clubs are doing – if they are still connecting people in villages, and inspiring them to come up with similar imaginative projects. I hope so.