A Discussion with David Omwoyo, Director of Waumini Communications, and Samuel Waweru, Information Officer, Waumini Communications
April 10, 2015
Background: Religious leaders hold significant social influence, so when they speak, people listen to them. Media use by religious leaders or institutions has great potential for a wide reach. Waumini Communications is the media outlet for the Catholic Church in Kenya. David Omwoyo and Samuel Waweru discussed the media strategies and mechanisms of the Catholic Church in Kenya with Crystal Corman on April 10, 2015. The two men describe radio and newspaper coverage, as well as hopes for regional expansion and the potential for a television station. They also give examples of youth, women, and non-Catholics discussing relevant issues and initiating dialogue for peaceful, just communities.
What kind of media do you specialize in?
We are in print, electronic, and radio. We have a network of radio stations throughout Kenya; our national station is called Radio Waumini, and then there are stations tied to Catholic dioceses. We have stations in Isiolo, Eldoret, Nakuru, Marsabit, Mombasa, Maralal, and Kitui. Radio Waumini broadcasts via satellite link in Nyeri, Kisumu, Meru, and Lamu. Basically, these stations support the evangelical work of the Catholic Church in Kenya. Plans are underway to start a TV station, and we also want to get more radio frequencies to cover other regions of the country.
What’s the history of the communications arm of the Catholic Church in Kenya?
The newspaper, The Catholic Mirror, started back in the 1970s, if I remember correctly. It has evolved over time and taken different names. There was a time when it was very influential. It was started in the Diocese of Nakuru, under former bishop Raphael S. Ndingi Mwana'a Nzeki, who was a very vocal bishop. He engaged the government over injustices and the paper played a role in helping him do this, and it was very popular. Then it was called the Mwananchi (The Citizen). It was published in the diocese of Nakuru, and all 50,000 copies would sell out on one Sunday. But things have changed over time. From what I know, Radio Waumini started in 2003.
How frequently is Catholic Mirror published?
The paper is published once a month. We cover Church news. Of late, we have changed our focus because we want to do more on issues of social justice and human-interest stories. We realize that if we want to attract a wider audience, we need to diversify our content. We realize that issues of social justice and human interest are attracting a wider audience than before.
How much does the newspaper cost?
Fifty Kenya shillings. It’s quite cheap. Many people use our parish networks to sell for us. We also sell some in bookshops, and sometimes we make visits to the parishes on Sundays to try to market it to Christians there.
Is the media culture changing in Kenya?
Yes. People are no longer reading print media. In my opinion, it is because you can get whatever you want on your phone. So people want instant news and by the time the news is printed in the papers, it’s old, so to speak.
Do you think that any of your readership is non-Catholic?
Yes, we have non-Catholics who are reading our paper—in part because what we cover is not specific to Catholics. We try to use a Catholic approach, but what we offer is of interest to a wider audience than just Catholics. The majority of people the Catholic Church is able to touch through various outlets are not Catholics. For example, we have schools where almost half the student population are Muslims. In the far-off semiarid regions of Kenya where the government’s presence is not felt, such as Turkana, Garissa, Maralal, Malindi, and Marsabit, most essential services are provided by the Catholic Church. We don’t discriminate. We serve all. So when we write this paper, although of course we have to maintain our identity, we do not restrict ourselves.
How are the stories prepared? Is it done by your staff here in Nairobi?
There are about three of us that work on the newspaper in the office. In the dioceses we have communication coordinators who help us get information from their dioceses. We also have columnists who send us topical issues every month. There is a priest who writes on issues of the family, and there is one who writes on issues of social justice. We also solicit ideas and occasionally go out and cover some of these things. For example, from time to time we feature a diocese by doing a cross-section of issues in that selected diocese. In this way, the reporting and editing is all in-house. It is only the printing that is done elsewhere.
What trends do you see in the media in Kenya? Where do most people get their news?
In Kenya, we do not have a strong reading culture, so you find that newspapers are not selling as many copies as they used to. A lot of people have smartphones. The young generation and the educated, who are now the majority, prefer to use social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp—to communicate information. Radio is also very influential in this country, especially in the morning and evening when people are riding to or from work. The vernacular radio stations are very popular. Many people have also bought TVs, but not as many as those who have bought radios. With radio you can listen to your radio in your car, on your phone, on the radio itself at home.
Radio is more influential than TV in Kenya. People in Kenya are obsessed with news, so the 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. news, those are times when people are watching TV more.
TV is also changing in Kenya since we moved to digital broadcasting this year. Many Kenyans have yet to migrate because of the cost of buying the set of boxes to get the digital signal. Not many people have bought into this idea yet, and there was a bit of confusion. There was a tug of war between the government and the media owners in this country, including a court case! The majority are now seeing that there’s no alternative and are buying the set-top boxes to get digital TV.
Is the Catholic Church using social media?
Yes, we are. If the bishops issue a statement or during your travels something interesting happens, you just write it on social media. Facebook and Twitter are the main ones I use. We use Twitter and Facebook the moment we publish the paper to announce that it is out and what to expect in the current issue. We don’t put everything up, because we want people to buy the issue. So that gives some synopsis of what to expect in the current issue.
Do your radio stations broadcast the same shows, or are they customized by location?
They are autonomous, but the plan is that we will network these radio stations so that at certain hours of the day, they broadcast common programs such as faith programs, or news programs like Church News Roundup. The common broadcast could also be current affairs programs that would be of national interest to our Church audience. In fact, we are rolling out that networking right now. We will do it by satellite, and we’ll also link them through the internet so that we can reach as many people as possible. This also helps us get funding from the corporate world so that we do not rely solely on donor funding.
Are there Muslim radio stations in Kenya as well?
Yes, there is Radio Iqra and a TV station, Kaaba, and others. Each religion in Kenya, even most Church organizations in the country, have radio stations. The Nairobi Pentecostal Church has a TV station called Hope TV and a radio station called Hope FM.
Do you host Muslim and other non-Catholic guests on your radio stations?
We already bring Muslim and Christian leaders together to discuss issues of peace in Isiolo. There’s a lot of conflict between the communities there. Because the Muslims are the majority, there’s no way you’re going to address issues of peace here if you don’t bring the Muslims on board. Last year we opened radio stations in two borderline dioceses, Isiolo and Kitui, where the north is entirely Muslim and the south is Christian. In Isiolo we have one weekly roundtable of the religious leaders, co-chaired by the bishop and the imam there.
There is a lot of interfaith and interreligious dialogue in general. I am very proud to say that more than 90 percent of this is initiated by the Catholic Church. For dialogue with the Muslims, the Church takes the lead in most cases. If you look at the traditional Catholic Church, the very original Church, there were no denominations; it was really a community thing. The Catholics have a good history in Kenya and are involved in the community. A significant majority of schools and hospitals in this country are owned by the Catholic Church. Catholics are found throughout Kenya. Even where we have very small minorities, we have a Catholic network for relief, healthcare, education. And as I said, in those regions we don’t discriminate. And in some cases, we provide more than the government.
Do you have some radio shows that are hosted by youth?
Yes, we have youth programs, and our engagement of the youth is deliberate. Among the thematic areas our radio stations focus on, one is youth— involvement, participation, and shielding them from radicalization and abuse by politicians and extremists. Our strategy is that youth are not just to be talked to, but they can be heard.
The programs involve getting youth together, playing the kind of music that will attract youth listeners, and then talking about topical issues within the program. Sometimes we also ask youth to call in or if they are not able to call in, to comment via Twitter or Facebook. And then the presenter will pick up or read them on air or sometimes during some roundtables. In this format, we bring the youth together to discuss matters of interest to the youth—issues of sexuality or matters of fashion. We don’t want to go overboard like you hear with other secular FM stations. We don’t want to go in that direction. But we are trying to promote the issues that the Church believes in (with guidance from the social teaching of the Church) and that affect the youth.
What about women radio hosts?
Actually at Waumini there are more women presenting than men. I think there are only three men and the rest are women in our staff of over 30. In Isiolo we have three women on a staff of seven in total. In each station we have a good mix of both men and women. We have followed what we would call the constitutional requirement of having at least a third of staff as women.
How does Waumini or each station decide what topics to discuss on air?
Each radio station has an editorial committee that decides. We also try to guide radio stations from this office on the sort of content we expect, but how they do it on an everyday basis is their prerogative. We don’t try to micromanage them and say, “This is the content you must air.”
Now in this network that we are forming, we give guidelines that during certain hours we will have the programs we produce here nationally. They could be on peace, reconciliation, conflict resolution. They will be aired at certain hours of the day, even if it is not broadcast live; it can be put on a database and aired at the specific radio’s convenience.
What are common themes for your radio programming?
We want our radios to be peace-promotion stations, so we expect that each station once or twice a week has a program that is addressing matters of peace and social justice in their region. Our presenters then host a topical program, usually in the morning hours, where they bring the audience to discuss the hot issues in their region. And usually, there are lots of conflicts, especially in the pastoralist regions. Eldoret was one of the regions most affected by the post-election violence in 2007, so we work to reconcile the communities. We want people to come back together without consideration of tribal or other social interests.
Could you list some of the topics you’ve been covering in the last couple of months?
Of course. We always have the Church news roundup and the diocese news. We also have the columns on marriage, relationships, and on issues of social justice, especially what is happening in the marginalized regions such as the Diocese of Lodwar. This is a drought-prone area, and it so happens that these are mostly areas where people practice pastoralism. There is conflict over livestock and conflict about pastures. Those regions that are entirely dependent on livestock, if drought comes, these people will suffer. Again they say the government neglected them, or that they are so far away that they are not reached by the national government. They are hoping that with devolution money will be equitably distributed. At that point, they will be able to come together to decide “Okay, this is our priority.” With devolution, power has been taken to the grassroots; they are now in charge of their destiny.
We focus on the areas where we feel there are injustices, including Mombasa, Malindi, Northeastern, Isiolo. Again, our bishops are always trying to hear the silent communities, so that’s why you’ll see in each issue we are focusing more on those areas.
The big issue currently is this terrorist attack that happened the other day at Garissa University and the radicalization of youth. We recently started a radio station in Mombasa and believe it will go a long way in helping to talk against radicalization. We also want to be an alternative voice, because they are radicalizing the youth in mosques and other places of worship among the Muslims. With our own radio and people to create awareness, we will make a contribution to stem recruitment.
Do you think religious leaders are using the media wisely, to call attention to things of importance?
Yes, they are. We have a lot of statements from the mainstream churches in the media today. Even yesterday we had a statement by the Catholic Church in the national media. We also had a press conference yesterday and the day before. There’s always something. So I would say that we are engaged. But on a scale of one to 10, I would give ourselves a seven. I feel religious leaders could do more, and in fact they need to do more.
Are religious leaders hesitant to speak out?
I don’t think so. We are one of the most open and free countries on this continent; for example, you can call the president names, and nobody will get you!
But there is a lot of transition in Kenya now. For one, we have generational differences, even among the religious leaders. Some prefer to work in silence while others work openly with the media. Some people have been “bitten.” If you are a bishop or a priest with your first media coverage on some sad story or an accusation against the Church, this first impression may result in thinking that the media is a bad thing. I know a bishop who will not get anywhere close to the media because his first one or two times being covered by the media were very bad; for him, the media is an enemy that must be avoided at all costs. Even when we have a press conference about the bishops’ conference, we will have some bishops who don’t want to sit out front saying, “I will sit at the end.”
On the other hand, we have bishops on Facebook, on Twitter, and a few of them have a website. We have bishops with weekly programs on radio stations. Others have even daily Vox Pops on the radio stations.
It sounds like some Church leaders are using new media. Is that catching on widely?
It is not just media alone. There seems to be a simmering feeling across the globe, most pronounced in Europe and the United States of course, but also in Africa in muffled tones, of a generation that is getting a little uncomfortable with the Church. There is a demand for accountability for the use of money…or people will simply stop giving to the Church. That spirit is seeping into Africa. The point is, this Church is not that different from the Church in Europe. We have young people who are very disgruntled with the Church; they feel that the Church is a generation apart from them. As an example, we lack modernization for the formation and training of priests. Did you know that it is mandatory in the dioceses for a priest to take a driving course in the seminary, yet he need not learn how to use a computer. We have not said that by the time this priest is ordained, he must be computer literate. We need a more dynamic Church. The Church is slow to change and doesn’t jump into issues too fast. It wants to be slow and careful.