When Hellen Samuel first became a radio journalist in South Sudan in the mid-1980s, it wasn’t easy.
Samuel encountered sexual harassment and inflexible deadlines, said the host of “Under the Tree,” a talk show covering topics ranging from health to politics. “Most ladies get married early, you have a family, you need the job and you have to complete your assignments on time regardless of how you make ends meet at home and at work.”
She now encourages women in South Sudan to get involved. “When you are determined, nothing will deter you from your dreams. If you really want to be a journalist, you can make it,” she tells them.
Radio is a popular means of sharing information in South Sudan, where only 27 percent of the nation’s 11.6 million people are literate and electricity is intermittent. Most radios are solar-powered or hand-cranked.
Politically, South Sudan has suffered setbacks since becoming independent from Sudan in 2011. Differences between two of its leaders, President Salva Kiir, of the Dinka ethnic group, and opposition leader Riek Machar, a Nuer, erupted in violence in December 2013 as armed groups took sides and terrorized the population. Thousands died and more than 2 million people fled their homes. The displaced populations are at risk of hunger and malnutrition, according to relief agencies.
Although the two leaders have signed various ceasefires and partial agreements as lately as Feb. 2, they have failed to reach a comprehensive peace deal and sporadic fighting continues.
Samuel’s show on 98.6 FM in the capital Juba, which also streams live on its website, provides an outlet for people to air their views and make suggestions. Its name is a reference to where traditional leaders and elders hold meetings — under trees — and make important decisions, she said.
“I love getting to the heart of the audience, seeing positive results after discussing an issue on the show, for example, absence of homeless children on the streets, mothers going for antenatal care, people going for HIV voluntary testing.”
She recalled one of her most memorable shows. It featured two university students whose fathers had died in 1992 when South Sudan was still part of Sudan under the Khartoum regime. Their mothers never remarried and took care of them alone.
As children, they sometimes had to miss school when they couldn’t afford the fees, and when they did go, they encountered bullies who taunted them for being fatherless.
Their situation was similar to families of other wartime widows, said Samuel. “Mothers not working, all properties taken by relatives of the fathers, nobody willing to help.”
But the two guests, a young man and woman, were adamant that they owed everything to their mothers and that change could only happen through education. “It was a very, very emotional show,” Samuel said. “Even some of my colleagues in the office shed tears.”