Peace on the Radio
The Voice of Teachers, Loud and Proud
“…on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.”
— Albert Camus, The Plague
You can teach a course on peace. You can create a safe, collaborative classroom so that students learn in peace. You can march for peace. But if you want to peace to be loud and proud, you have to listen and help others be heard. That’s where the radio comes in.
Raphael Oko’s radio show, “The Voice of Teachers,” spread to Niger, Plateau, and Kaduna States. Every Monday, 1.6 million listeners tuned in to his 45-minute broadcast on Kapital FM 92.9, Abuja—from tinny speakers on buses during the afternoon commute. Streaming loudly from cars, both front doors open, from transistor radios at the public market. Rather than lecture, he interspersed music and community announcements with showcase stories of local education heroes who shared new teaching techniques. He reported the news from an educator’s perspective, convened panels, invited guest speakers, cheered on schools committed to equality and innovation.
Once again, the switchboard lit up with listeners calling in. If they were unable to participate during the show, Raphael collected SMS messages and either responded directly or added those topics or questions to the following week’s show. Before asking questions or making statements on air, callers would announce the time and place for their local VOT Listeners’ Clubs.
With his award money, he leveraged an endorsement from The Teachers Registration Council of Nigeria — a federal government agency responsible for licensing teachers in Nigeria, and reached his funding goals for the following season. The Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria approved its syndication in all 36 states.
6,000 kilometres across the continent, a radio station in Somalia utilized the radio for a fundamentally different set of messages. Controlled by Shabaab (“youth” in Arabic), a quiz show for 10–17 year olds who responded correctly to questions about the organization offered up unusual prizes. According to The New York Times, the top two winners got “AK-47s, some money, and Islamic books. The third-place winner was given with two hand grenades.” I pity the children who didn’t score well at all.
Despite a famine in Somalia, the article reports that Shabaab had been barring aid groups, blocking starving refugees, banning bras, and forbidding gold teeth, dancing and soccer — deeming them un-Islamic — and detonating truck bombs, one of which was parked at a government building, killing students simply awaiting for the posting of their exam results.
The article continues: “Sheik Muktar Robow Abu Monsur, who is widely considered a moderate Shabab leader, proudly said, ‘Children should use one hand for education and the other for a gun to defend Islam,’ according to Somali accounts of the event.”
The Campaign for Education cites an Iraq Institution from Development report of textbooks in ISIS-controlled regions which claims: “Arithmetic exercises ask students to calculate the number of explosives a factory can produce…or the number of Shi’ite Muslims or ‘unbelievers’ that can be killed by a car suicide-bomber,” and describes how “the plus sign (+) has been abolished as it’s claimed it refers to the Christian cross.”
In west Africa, Raphael was waging peace on the air by seeding a community of listeners with information they could use, in turn, to sow the seeds of hope — how to create an inclusive environment in classrooms that emphasized curiosity, compassion, and critical thinking. How to think about problems by tinkering, experimenting, asking questions. And yet in east Africa, Shabaab was teaching something else — waging war on the air by fomenting hate, broadcasting a terrorist call-in quiz competition for children during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, distributing weapons, and dividing their communities into zones for militias to carve up as they pleased.
Raphael has long known, however, that Nigeria was the victim of its own grotesque horrors. The Boko Haram, in northern Nigeria, means “western education is evil.” The logo is comprised of two crossed AK-47 rifles in a V shape. Between them, a nondescript book. A black flag bearing the shahada (“There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God”) rises from the spine. Their crimes against humanity are not limited to the kidnapping of hundreds of girls in Chibok. Their expressed intent is to impose strictest form of Sharia law against what they consider to be government corruption. As a result, they have robbed banks, burned down schools, and conducted execution-style murders of officials, police, Christians, and any Muslim who opposes them.
On an afternoon filled with meetings (for which I had turned off my phone), Raphael had left 4 messages. The latest one was at 4:00 pm in Seattle (1:00 am in Abuja). He usually does not make time-zone mistakes. I returned the call. After a few attempts, we finally connected. Static and a gurgling whirr, as if he were underwater, prevented me from understanding him fully — something about Jos and children.
When the line cleared, Raphael was clearly in shock. He had traveled to Benue state to visit his mentor, Joseph Hungwa, who had fallen ill. Joseph had long been an advocate for Teachers Without Borders. His credibility and depth of knowledge had attracted hundreds of teachers to attend seminars about the right to literacy and the ability of any community member, regardless of background or financial capacity, to gain the skills necessary for active participation in civic life.
After visiting Joseph, he explained, Raphael traveled on to Jos — a cosmopolitan city located in Nigeria’s Plateau State known for tin-mining, having attracted migrants and a diverse population — to observe Teachers Without Borders projects. Plateau State has been characterized as a center of peace and tourism. However, there were reports of unrest in the area, and he wanted to ensure that his ensure that his colleagues and friends were safe.
Raphael’s call was about what he had just witnessed. He had arrived in Jos in time to witness the aftermath of a massacre and had, only hours before, stood over a ditch containing bodies. There were other bodies in the streets. Villagers had fled. News reports were graphic: the screaming, the blood, the machetes, a church on fire, faces stony or wailing, huddled, and praying — a tinderbox of religious violence. The trigger for these atrocities was up for debate: economic exclusion from oil jobs? Long-simmering resentments over land rights? An act of western education? While unforgivable, there had to be a reason. Raphael was quite capable of articulating the political, cultural, racial, or economic context. His only concern was its aftermath.
He spoke with extra deliberation, his tone flat, sepulchral. The call would drop and we would start again. He attempted to regain his composure. He did not want money. He did not want me to do anything. He simply wanted to be heard. After months of broadcasting to large groups, he wanted an audience of one. I remained silent. When this first conversation came to an end, I promised to connect again. It was increasingly difficult. Was he avoiding my calls? Had I disappointed him.
Nothing could be further from the truth; he was simply planning. Over time, and upon his return home to Abuja, Raphael mobilized his team to use the “Voice of Teachers” radio program to bring this subject right out into the open. If he had been given an opportunity to vent, so should others. Up to this point, the “Voice of Teachers” program disseminated expertise in various forms, leaving plenty of room for call-in questions and comments. It had worked well as a cost-effective and efficient mechanism for communication at scale.
This was something entirely different. He challenged Teachers Without Borders members to speak, without censorship, about what they had witnessed, within the boundaries of accepted rules of radio etiquette. In that frame, he opened a door, leaving little room for government officials to dominate the airwaves with soaring rhetorical proclamations or hollow promises. This would be a series of segments that focused directly on issues of peace and human rights. He challenged me to enter this territory as well. TWB had been playing it safe. While one can assert that our very existence and mission — to empower teachers to transform their classrooms into active learning laboratories and encourage critical thinking — challenges the status quo, we were bound by the conditions of our not-for-profit status and by grant funding not to engage in advocacy or direct policy work. “We can’t wait,” he said. “Education can’t wait for another day. It’s time to commit to peace — now.” While education is a process that takes time, it is also an urgent necessity. Peace-building is an inherent fundamental pillar of any global organization. We were serving no one by avoiding confrontation.
I posted information on our website about the radio show’s focus on the catastrophe in Jos and almost immediately received a call about a teacher unionist in Iran, Farzad Kamangar, who was facing the imminent danger of being executed — just for his views. His trial, for reasons still unknown, lasted seven minutes. Trade unions around the world appealed to His Excellency Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. By May, his death was confirmed.
More calls flooded in — about escalating drug-fueled violence in Mexico, Maoist attacks on teachers in India, torture of human rights educators in the Congo, Myanmar, the Philippines. We poured through UNESCO reports cataloguing attacks on teachers and schools, sexual assaults on teachers and students, arrests and torture of education protestors, remotely-detonated explosions at schools, occupation of educational facilities by military gangs. UNESCO’s interviews revealed several motivations for these cruelties: ransom, sexual favors, the intent to undermine government power, prevent the education of girls, to ensure that teachers do not teach critical thinking.
Teachers Without Borders had to plunge in. Stephanie Knox Cubbon, a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger and graduate of the University for Peace, stepped forward. Dr. Konrad Glogowski, TWB’s Executive Director, provided the strategic vision. Within a few months, the Joseph Hungwa Peace Education program was launched to honor his faith in our organization and his abiding belief that teachers are, by nature, peacemakers. We solicited suggestions from our membership and soon began to integrate issues of central concern to teachers worldwide: bullying, discrimination over gender identity, the importance of building a classroom climate of safety necessary for learning to take place.
The Peace Education program has followed the pattern, once again: an inspired teacher gathers a team of committed stakeholders from every station in life, creates something adaptable and adoptable by others, and ensures that the work is grounded in culture so that it may cross borders easily.
In South Africa, Nyasha Mutasa completed the Joseph Hungwa Peace Education program and engaged her colleague Patrys Wolmarans, Director of the South Africa National Peace Project to conduct workshops in primary schools.
In Mexico, Deya Castilleja adapted the program for teachers living and work in gang-infested communities.
In Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, United States, and Canada, in online courses and offline community meetings, on the radio and in podcasts, the Joseph Hungwa Peace Education program has grown because it is shared.
One would assume that the rationale for peace education is clear. The world is experiencing an unprecedented youth bulge. In 2015, one of every six people were between 14 to 25 years old, or 1.2 billion, projected to increase to 1.3 billion by 2030. The global refugee population has swelled. Climate change has undermined confidence in societies accustomed to depending upon natural resources.
It follows, then, that should youth be given opportunities to solve conflicts and interdependent challenges peacefully and collaboratively, incidents of psychological and physical violence would decrease, and that peace education should be integrated into all elements of community development. To this end, peace education programs have proliferated.
The UN’s Declaration on the Rights of the Child, peace education is an indisputable human right: “Education shall be directed … to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship … and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.”
No one disputes the validity of research on the positive correlation between violence containment and overall societal well-being across all development sectors.
Assessing the impact of peace education is another matter entirely. One must ask oneself a central question, “What must I keep in mind in order to create and use a tool to measure peace?” and consider the challenges it poses. Shall it focus on a single outcome, like the measurement of incidents of violence before and after my education intervention? Attitude and behavior change? It is as complex as the human condition itself and requires a more substantial yardstick than anecdotal evidence.
Recent psycho and socio-metrics and toolkits have attempted to address the manifold and abstruse components of culture, historical legacy, population variability, equality indices, basic education, stability, and a community’s capacity for resilience — especially where it matters the most — in communities entering into, or emerging from, conflict. We recognize the influence of girls’ education, economic stability and mobility, and climate change on peace, for which Nobel Peace Prizes have been awarded.
Human beings are complicated. Simmering resentments, corrupt leadership, a protracted sense of disenfranchisement have worn down the fabric of a society. The wisdom of crowds can deteriorate into a mob mentality. And yet individuals can make powerful symbolic gestures heard round the world. Gandhi in a loin cloth and the walk on behalf of salt workers. Martin Luther King and John Lewis and the walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The woman who risks her career by speaking truth to abuse and who, in turn, inspires the #me too movement.
And who best to wage peace? Teachers. Some wage war. Raphael Oko, a teacher, waged peace on the radio.