When Radio Benevolencija started the “Great Lakes Reconciliation Project” five years ago in Rwanda, no one imagined 90 percent of the population would be addicted to the weekly, 20-minute soap opera called “Musekeweya,” aimed at changing attitudes in a country where trauma healing is certainly not easy.
“Musekeweya,” meaning New Dawn, was born to cure wounds and bring neighbors together, to reconcile Hutus and Tutsis. It was born to create a common identity and build peace, so Rwandans wouldn’t feel anymore that crying was not acceptable and talking about the past not advisable.
“From identifying with the characters that turn from bad to good in the soap opera, people can change,” says Johan Deflander, international development and communication expert who is the Head of Mission of La Benevolencija in Burundi, where they have another show.
Through the combination of an entertainment and educational approach, their huge financial investment produces the best result: an overall change in behavior, leading to understanding and forgiveness.
Their results are especially astonishing considering that radio was the main genocidal propaganda tool back in 1994, when Hutus killed as many as a million Tutsis and their Hutu supporters were killed in less than three months. Back then, radio listeners would get from the airwaves messages such as “Kill the cockroaches!”–to provoke Hutus to violence, mostly machete attacks and mass rapes against their Tutsi neighbors.. Today, radio is used to help both Hutus and Tutsis explain why genocide happened and how reconciliation is possible.
But the key to this initiative’s success is that the education and therapy are not explicit: “Musekeweya” is highly entertaining. The episodes picture how life flows on two hills that symbolize the two ethnicities of the country. About 30 characters fall in love, laugh, and talk openly about community problems.
The Radio Project has been produced by “a media cocktail,” as Deflander calls it. Part of the funding pays for media plans and strong qualitative research. Together with a team of journalists, psychologists, and development practitioners, local people design the creative part of the episodes. “Of course it can’t be imported from the West,” Deflander says. He also emphasizes the importance of involving the government and being 100 percent transparent, “because they are essential in our process of shaping attitudes.”
Many Rwandans acknowledge “Musekeweya” has changed their lives. “What is uniting us is far more important than what is separating us,” asserts a Rwandan in a film Deflander and his team put up to celebrate the 5th birthday of the radio show.
Perhaps, as Radio Benevolencija demonstrates, more doctors around the world should prescribe soap operas for reconciliation.
Are wars any different today than any other time in history. How different? Or is it only media platforms that are changing?
Writers Thomas Rid and Marc Hecker say war is changing but that it’s not all related to the web.
Their book, “War 2.0” makes this point. “Information technology helps insurgents, as most people know, but it’s also a big challenge for them,” asserts Hecker, researcher at Institut Francais des Relations Internationales. The authors acknowledge that Information technology is favoring insurgents by giving them new means for recruitment, new propaganda tools, and easy organization techniques. But change, they argue, runs in both directions.
The two authors didn’t have it easy defending their position at a workshop here at the Global Media Forum. Many participants criticized their views, mainly arguing war’s war and will always be, and that new media is what’s changing war.
The revolution in technology, the authors said, is accompanied by a dramatic change in warfare itself, with less traditional, one-on-one, good-versus-bad conflicts. Now wars are asymmetric. “Today the visual framing of conflict is not only one-sided; groups gained the right to create their own visual representations,” asserts Hecker. Both sides in a war adapt to new media platforms and have to learn to use media to their advantage.
A third speaker, Sebastian Kaempf, who has mainly based his post-doctoral research on the U.S. war on terror, emphasized the role of the media in transforming wars’ visual representation. “War is evolving online, not only on the ground,” he adds.
“Now small actors have greater power thanks to the media,” continues Thomas Rid, a research fellow in School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, “and journalists have a lot to learn.”