40 Years of Broadcasting from London in African Languages

Article excerpt

The British Broadcasting Corp (BBC) launched its radio broadcasts to Africa in indigenous African languages in 1957 at the height of the British government's anxiety over Egyptian Gamal Abdel Nasser's anti-imperialist administration. This development was made possible through the earlier invention of transistor radios, the innovation that supplanted the older and costlier electric radios. The number of listeners to the BBC broadcast in the continent grew as the audio equipment became more affordable and shortwave transmitters were enhanced.

In 1957 the BBC began broadcasts from London in Somali, Hausa and Swahili. Through these broadcasts the BBC has made a major contribution over the past forty years to communication in Africa and to the development and use of these major languages.

Writing about broadcasting for anyone with an interest in archives, sources and permanent records of any kind raises some problems. The importance of radio and television in the history of the 20th Century is without question. But the problem remains for the writer and scholar to find or be able to refer to any good sources at all for a medium that is, by its very nature, ephemeral. If anything is kept it is for the purpose of using again, not generally for the sake of history.[2]

The Importance of Radio in Africa

Broadcasting, mainly through radio, has been of particular importance in Africa. Its arrival on the continent in the 1920s was not of major significance at that time. This was because although many colonial settlers and officials soon acquired sets in order to hear broadcasts from London, Paris, Hilversum or the very few African transmitters, very few indigenous Africans had sets. Very few of them lived in houses with an electricity supply. There were battery driven radio sets, but these were expensive and cumbersome and there were very few in Africa. The arrival of the transistor changed all this forever and led to radio becoming widely available, being both cheap and capable of being run on torch batteries. As a result, radio became the major mass communications medium of Africa during the 1960s.

It was the discovery in 1948 of the semi-conducting properties of silicon by three inventors, Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley, working in the Bell Telephone Laboratories in the United States, that made this happen. They had little idea at the time of the significance of their discovery but it was probably the single most important technological development of the [20.sup.th] century. Their breakthrough led not only to the transistor revolution that began about ten years after their first crude device was made but also, as the technology improved, to miniaturisation and digitisation that has made possible the massive changes in the whole field of information that have marked the closing years of the century.

You would not think that radio was an important medium in Africa if you relied for your evidence on articles and books about the continent's history, politics, society or culture. Few of them ever mention broadcasting, even though it plays such an obvious role in political events and in the development of such things as music and language. While most of Africa's printed press has been in the languages of the former colonial powers, radio has been less dependent on these relatively 'elite' languages. The first broadcasts specifically aimed at African audiences were in Northern Rhodesia in 1941 and were in indigenous languages. This Central African Broadcasting Station, as it became known, eventually broadcast in most of the major languages of Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland.[3] Elsewhere, especially in anglophone Africa, similar policies were followed and indigenous languages provided the mainstream of all radio broadcasting. To this day many more African languages are used in radio than in the press.

Radio broadcasting in sub-Saharan Africa grew very rapidly from the mid 1950s onwards, both in transmission and reception. …