Ekialo Kiona: The Community Centre Safeguarding the Suba Language

According to estimates from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), half of the 6,000 plus languages spoken across the globe today could disappear by the end of the century. If this were the case, they stress, humanity would lose not only a cultural wealth but also ancestral knowledge embedded, in particular, in undocumented indigenous languages. All over the world, including in East Africa, indigenous communities are being assimilated into more populous neighbours, and oral traditions are fading with the passing of each generation.

One of these East African communities is the Suba – a Bantu-speaking community on the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria, which over the years has been heavily influenced by the predominant group in the region – the Luo. So much so, in fact, that the Suba language, Olusuba, is listed among Africa’s 300 languages consigned to extinction by the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing. The name ‘Suba’, itself, is a Luo word used to describe the original migrants from Uganda in the late 18th century who settled on the eastern islands and shores of Lake Victoria. Today, the remnants of Suba culture have been largely confined to a few scattered communities on Mfangano Island.

There are those, however, who are helping to preserve Olusuba – chief among which is a radio station in a small community centre on the island’s southern shore. Every day, between one and six pm, the Ekialo Kiona Suba Youth Radio Station (99.3 FM), or EK-FM, broadcasts programmes on health, sustainable agriculture, fishing, youth empowerment and, importantly, Suba language and culture. The latter includes daily Olusuba lessons, Suba music and lengthy discussions with Suba elders. Even when they are not on air, the EK-FM broadcasters spend their time interviewing community members and collating traditions and stories of Suba history from across the region. It is one of the only radio stations in the region that broadcasts programmes in Olusuba, and is certainly the only one to focus its programming so heavily on the preservation of Suba culture.

‘The elders claim that Suba started to disappear in colonial times’, explained Richard Magerenge, the founder of the community centre. ‘The white settlers were on the mainland, where they picked up Luo. When they arrived on the island they brought with them Luo translators, but the islanders didn’t want to have to communicate through translators, so gradually started to learn Luo. The men then started to marry Luo women, and even disciplined children not to speak in Suba. That is when things really started to change. Today, most youths struggle to speak Olusuba fluently, and if something is not done now, the language will definitely disappear.’

In addition to the Suba language and culture programmes, the station collaborates with over 50 micro-clinics on the island to improve the general knowledge of, and attitudes towards, HIV and AIDS. It also offers a youth development initiative which gives secondary school students the opportunity to develop and present stories over the radio, as well as an educational programme which links local farmers to district agriculture officers for information on growing seasons and crops.

Though the centre currently revolves heavily around the radio station, it wasn’t originally intended to do so. The founder, Richard, is a local resident of Mfangano who trained to be a voluntary health worker. The prevalence of HIV and AIDS on the island is among the highest in the region – 7,000 of its 26,000 inhabitants are HIV positive – and Richard wanted to create a centre that offered voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) without the stigmatisation that often surrounds such health facilities. He came up with the idea of establishing a ‘Cyber-VCT’ centre – which would also satisfy the islanders’ enthusiasm for internet access. It would also form an incentive, and a valid excuse, for residents to participate in regular HIV counselling and testing. Everyone who joined the ‘club’ through biannual HIV testing would receive free unlimited access to the internet.

With the help of three university students, a team of builders from Mfangano and grants from Google and other partners in the US, Richard spent three years building the solar-powered centre, as well as a wind-powered communications tower that activated East Africa’s longest broadband Wi-Fi link. The communications tower was followed by a wind and solar-powered 500 Watt FM transmitter, from which the EK-FM Radio Station was born. Though the usual range of the transmitter is 80km, the station claimed that it often gets callers from as far away as Nakuru, and some even from Tanzania.

Today, the centre has 2,300 members, 45 local staff, and a network of dozens of international volunteers. Since construction began in 2009, it has developed a number of community-based programmes, including a scholarship fund to send selected primary school students on Mfangano to secondary school, a micro-clinic programme that builds on existing social networks to encourage attitude changes and communication on issues related to HIV and AIDS, and a ‘Sisterhood Exchange Programme’ which is a support network that links HIV positive women on Mfangano to others in Kenya and in the US. It is also experimenting with ‘aquaponics’ – an innovative farming system which, very simply put, uses Tilapia excrement to fertilise a range of vegetables not usually suited to the local environment.

These just touch the surface of the Ekialo Kiona Centre’s current initiatives. It even received a shipment of 350 mountain bikes from an organisation called ‘Bicycles for Humanity’ in the US, and now runs a bike shop. What started off, in essence, as a VCT centre for the island’s residents to check their HIV status, has evolved over the years into the focal point of community activity on Mfangano Island. Whether it involves surfing the net, a counselling session on HIV, or a Suba language tutorial on EK-FM, Richard has found a unique way to raise awareness about and address some of the major issues facing the island’s residents on a daily basis.

Published in The East African newspaper