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Radio Africa

A new radio show reaches out to new Vermonters


Published April 4, 2007 at 12:38 p.m.

Abdou Tahirou - ANDY DUBACK
  • Andy Duback
  • Abdou Tahirou

Scan the FM radio dial in the Burlington area, and you'll hear plenty of rock, pop and country. But if South African jazz or the latest from Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour is more your style, tune in to Radio Africa on 88.7, the St. Michael's College station, Sunday afternoons from 3 until 5.

The show, which premiered last month, plays an eclectic mix of African artists. But it's not just about entertainment. Radio Africa is also performing a unique public service. It's currently the only local media offering aimed specifically at the 1500 to 2000 African-born immigrants and refugees living in the Burlington area.

The show is sponsored by the Association of Africans Living in Vermont, a nonprofit that attempts to help African newcomers adjust to life in the Green Mountain State. The AALV holds workshops and trainings to ease the transition into American society, but Director George Wright explains that it's a challenge to get the word out, especially given the fact that Africans in the Burlington area come from 29 different countries, and speak many languages.

The organization sometimes tapes its events and airs them on Channel 17, but not everyone gets cable. Radio is a far more accessible medium, and the listening habit is well established among most Africans. It's ubiquitous in their respective homelands, where infrastructure challenges, political instability, unreliable power and bad roads limit the distribution of newspapers and television programs. Most Africans hear the latest about their own continent from the BBC or Radio France, on battery-operated radios. Wright notes, "It's not difficult to encourage people to turn on the radio, that's for sure," he says.

Wright recruited Radio Africa's two DJs, Thato Ratsebe and Abdou Tahirou. Tahirou, a 33-year-old from Niger, came to the U.S. in 2000, and studied at Vermont Technical College. He lives in Burlington and works as a technician making rail station signs at Alstom. Ratsebe, a svelte 29-year-old native of Botswana, came to the U.S. in 2001. She studied at the Community College of Vermont for two years before transferring to St. Mike's, where she majored in journalism and mass communications. She's now working on her Master there, in administration and management.

On a recent Sunday afternoon at the WWPV studio in Edmunds Hall, Ratsebe tinkers with the control board, while Tahirou sits behind a mike on the other side of the table. Radio Africa is Tahirou's first on-air experience; Ratsebe once worked for a radio station in Botswana.

Despite her prior radio time, Ratsebe is guilty of an occasional technical fumble - the volume redlines, the mikes stay live a little too long. "I'm a little rusty right now," she admits with a smile, "but it's OK."

Joining Ratsebe and Tahirou in the studio today is AALV Director Wright, a Maine native and 1999 Middlebury grad, who types up an AALV event calendar on his laptop for use later in the show. Abraham Awolich, a Dinka man from Sudan, is also there. He'll describe his tribe's customs during Radio Africa's weekly cultural profile segment.

Gayle Finkelstein, a poison prevention educator from the Northern New England Poison Center and Fletcher Allen Health Care, is making a guest appearance. Public-health professionals aren't typical college radio guests, but Ratsebe and Tahirou interview one nearly every week; during their last show in March, they spoke with a representative from Burlington's lead program.

Vermont's health and social-service providers have embraced the show as another way to reach out to the African community. Many new arrivals to the U.S., particularly those who have lived in refugee camps for a decade or more, need help understanding basic things about life in an industrialized society.

What constitutes a poison, and how to handle it, for example. After a song from South African singer Sipho Gumede, Ratsebe and Tahirou begin the interview portion of the show. Reading from lists of questions they've prepared with Wright during their weekly planning meetings, they ask Finkelstein to give examples of things that are poisonous.

The specialist lists common household items such as window cleaner, toilet bowl cleaner and perfume, gasses such as carbon monoxide, and wild mushrooms. "We get a lot of calls about children who've gotten into things," Finkelstein says. She advises listeners not to store poisons near food, and to keep them in their original containers.

Ratsebe offers an observation. "When I was reading your website today," she comments to Finkelstein, "I noticed that medicine can be poisonous." Ratsebe remembers sharing prescription medicine with her siblings when she was younger. "Is it a reasonable thing, to share these kinds of things at home?" she asks.

"You should never take someone else's medicine," Finkelstein answers. No single problem precipitates more calls to the poison hotline. Finkelstein explains that prescriptions and instructions on dosage are only intended for one patient. And, she adds, prescriptions can become dangerous when they expire.

This is useful information - a good reminder for any listener - but Wright concedes that it's likely not reaching the newest Ameri- cans who need it most. Unlike the music lyrics - delivered in Wolof, French and Xhosa - the interviews are all in English.

Wright points out that they'd need a variety of translators to reach all of their African constituents. It's just not feasible. So they do the show in English, hoping to reach community leaders who might pass the information along to others.

"We're sort of training the trainers, if you want to think of it that way," he says.

During her interview, Finkelstein relays the poison-control hotline phone number several times, and lets listeners know that they have translators available, as well as trained medical staff. The service is both anonymous and free. She urges them to call if they have questions, in the middle of the night if need be. "It could save you a trip to the hospital," she says.

Ratsebe and Tahirou's conversation with Awolich is more lighthearted. They banter about Dinka dances and community wrestling competitions. Ratsebe jokes, "We hope that someday you will teach us some of your moves."

Awolich, a 27-year-old Dinka man, came to the U.S. in 2001, via a refugee camp in Kenya. He has since graduated from the University of Vermont, where he studied business and anthropology. Like the two Radio Africa hosts, he speaks several languages. Awolich serves on the AALV board of directors, and works with the New Sudan Education Initiative.

Ratsebe and Tahirou question Awolich about his tribe - Ratsebe is particularly curious about their marriage practices. "It's not easy to marry a Dinka girl," instructs Awolich. Dinka men must pay a dowry of several hundred cattle, and must win the trust of the bride's family, as well. "You have to come up with a strategy to do that," he says.

Ratsebe says she wants to hear more about Dinka courtship after a musical break. When the interview resumes, she suggests Awolich tell American listeners how to win the heart of a woman from the tribe.

Teasing the segment like a skilled pro, she promises, "We'll have fun with that one when we come back."

Come-ons like that might catch the attention of non-African listeners, which is one of Tahirou's secondary goals for the program. "They will learn also that Africa is not only one country," he suggests, "that there are different countries with people who speak different languages."

Related stories this week:

Out of Africa... and Into Vermont: Refugees and local activists make cross-continental connections

By Kevin J. Kelley

Congolese Expats Accuse Area Police of Discrimination

By Mike Ives

From the archives:

Workshop Attempts to Help African Refugees Adjust to U.S. Rules and Regs (8/9/06)

By Cathy Resmer

The State's Most Recent Refugees Get a Boost (1/25/06)

By Cathy Resmer

Africans, Unite: Vermont opens its doors to refugees. Now what? (12/14/05)

By Cathy Resmer