Kristine Pearson demonstrates one of her radios at a school in northern Kenya.
Kristine Pearson demonstrates one of her radios at a school in northern Kenya.

Meet the woman who is using radio for upliftment in extreme rural areas of Africa

By Duncan Guy Time of article published Feb 6, 2021

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Kristine Pearson is the driving force behind Lifeline Energy, which has distributed more than 685 000 radios in order to bring important Covid-19 information to listeners.

Durban - Kristine Pearson graduated from university in California intending to make money.

“I can’t say I always wanted to help others, “ Pearson, who was named by Time Magazine as a Hero of the Environment for 2007, told the Independent on Saturday.

However, her wanderlust was the catalyst to changing that.

“I was an early onset millennial. I wanted to see the world.”

Three decades later, she is the driver behind enhancing community development in Africa through her organisation, Lifeline Energy, providing more than 685 000 radios, which have reached millions of listeners.

Next Saturday (February 13) is World Radio Day.

The wind-up and solar-powered, Chinese-made radio sets she has commissioned and distributed have been designed to suit the needs of users, her knowledge acquired from “sitting on the ground” to hear what would be most appropriate.

That’s the most important thing in social entrepreneurship, she stressed.

“Don’t try to solve a problem you don’t understand. Live it, or work for an organisation. Be as close to it as possible, otherwise you’ll waste money and not help.”

A radio-driven classroom in Zambia where children receive lessons over the air from ’Mrs Musanda’.

In the Covid-19 pandemic, she said radio had brought important information to listeners deep in rural Africa, telling the facts, how to save face, where to get help, how to get tested.

“And to combat fake news.”

Lifeline Energy, of which she is chief executive, cut its teeth providing education broadcasts in Zambia after HIV-Aids had cost many teachers their lives; life skills to child-headed households in post-genocide Rwanda; relief information in flood-flattened Mozambique and providing English lessons in Kenya.

“Aids wiped out so many teachers 20 years ago in southern Africa,” she explained.

“It has taken time to build up again. NGOs can be helpful with technical assistance, but they never replace the teachers.”

In Zambia, countless children who crowd around sets in numbers know "Mrs Musanda" as their teacher, from her lessons broadcast over the radio.

“You don’t have to pay anyone (in each classroom). You don’t need a teacher, just someone who is literate to explain things like, such as what the letters look like.”

In Rwanda, child-headed households saw the voice on radio as something, coming from someone, they could trust.

“Orphans in Rwanda didn’t trust the adults around them. Somebody next door could have been complicit in their parents’ murders. What I loved most was seeing the power of radio in a language they could understand, a voice they could trust, so that they did not have to make their decisions by guesswork.”

While some might believe radio is on its way out as technologies such as WhatsApp become more commonplace, Pearson believes the medium still has its place, especially in rural Africa.

WhatsApp can refer users to radio stations to access credible information rather than fake news, she said.

“It often makes sense to go back to radio.”

She also says many women in rural Africa are not expected to be on WhatsApp in much of Africa. Her strong interest in women's issues often overlaps with her promoting radio.

Once, a trip to West Africa to distribute radios to schools during the Ebola crisis in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone had unintended consequences. Things didn’t work out as planned when she and her team had to spend time in quarantine.

The population had also been in quarantine, in their homes, streets and communities.

“There was a massive rise in teenage pregnancies. Now it’s something they’re dealing with by having a radio programme on adolescent reproductive health,” she said.

Pearson has also seen the impact increased school attendance by children has had on women in Africa.

“The result is that these children in rural areas who used to work on the farm are now in class. Men are away earning money. The burden is now more on the women to fetch water and look after the animals.”

And climate change.

“In East Africa, thousands have headed to the towns and the cities. They have no skills.”

She has also noted a shift in what women want to know. In the past it was mainly issues such as children, health, HIV, violence and alcohol.

“Now, it’s how can I make money? They want to understand more about money, how to use money platforms better, the skills they need and what to do with the money they earn. We have no understanding of how humiliating it is to be poor. People can’t read and suddenly they need to read things, like what's written on money.”

Radio, including pieces in vernacular languages, is a solution, she believes.

Her next plan is to put together – Radio Voice Bank – a bank of audio material gathered from the content that has already been created, including that from Africa’s huge number of community radio stations using vernacular languages.

“You’ve got content that is run once and never heard again.”

So, how has this former Californian textiles graduate who immigrated to South Africa and lives in Cape Town come to feel so at home in South Africa, as well as the many other countries on the continent that she often visits?

She takes a page out of the book of a lecturer at university who taught social anthropology, which was only a quarter-year course in her degree.

“He had fled the Congo aged 16. He was a wild guy who wore a chain made of teeth around his neck. He didn’t fit the mould, but he told us, ‘If you remember nothing I tell you, allow the laws of hospitality to protect you’.”

“People have been nice to me. They have protected me. That has been my reality.”

The Independent on Saturday

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