With a Hand-Made Transmitter and a Treetop Antenna, Cameroonian Teacher Broadcasts Message of Harmony

From his makeshift radio studio on a hill in his village, 23-year-old Elvis Akumbu reaches about 10,000 people. Having lost a childhood home to tribal warfare, Akumbu takes to the airwaves to encourage healthy intertribal relations. The station disseminates news and provides a forum for discussions of social and cultural issues.

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With a Hand-Made Transmitter and a Treetop Antenna, Cameroonian Teacher Broadcasts Message of Harmony

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KEJOM KETINGUH, CAMEROON – From a hilltop in Kejom Ketinguh, a village in northwestern Cameroon, a tall eucalyptus tree pruned bare halfway to the top peeks up beyond the rest of the vegetation. At the tip of the tree is an antenna that transmits the signal of the area’s only radio broadcaster.

On the ground, a footpath leads through fields of beans, Irish potatoes and corn to the radio station, a makeshift 3-square-meter (32-square-foot) structure of raffia bamboo, eucalyptus branches and old metal sheets in a field of grass. Two cables extend from the roof of the station to the antenna on the eucalyptus tree.

Elvis Akumbu, the radio station’s owner, pushes open the lockless door and enters the studio. Inside is a small transmitter, a small microphone and two old chairs. Old cartons line the walls of the studio, providing a measure of soundproofing.

Akumbu carries two mobile phones – one to receive calls in the studio and the other one to play music. He places a microphone on the phone and plays music. Placing the phones on one of the chairs, Akumbu pulls open the transmitter box, connects some cables and immediately goes on air.

“Good morning, Kejom Ketinguh!” he says. “Welcome to FM Techno. We are broadcasting on FM 99.3 megahertz.”

His eyes rhythmically open and close; his right leg dances back and forth.

Akumbu, a 23-year-old high school graduate, built his village’s first and only radio station using scrap cables and other electronic waste. The station’s signal has a radius of 3 kilometers (1.8 miles), so it reaches about 10,000 of the roughly 25,000 people in the village.

FM Techno broadcasts village news and programs that tackle social and cultural issues in the community. Villagers say the station discourages the kind of intertribal violence that has visited the community in the past.

Akumbu started assembling materials for his radio station when he entered secondary school at age 14.

“My curiosity began when my form-one physics teacher lectured us on the topic of waves,” says Akumbu, now a part-time physics teacher at his former school, Government High School Kejom Ketinguh. “At the end of that topic, I couldn’t sleep. I was only thinking of how to make things work technologically.”

While reading about physics and technology, Akumbu began stockpiling potential radio equipment, such as old cables and electronics he pulled from refuse heaps.

He dismantled old electronics to get the transistors, resistors and condensers he needed to create a transmitter and an antenna. He then bought a small chassis board, which contains electronic components that help capture the signal. He planted a raffia pole outside his room to act as a mast for his antenna.

His first transmitter, created when he was 14, didn’t work, but he kept trying.

In 2009, when he was 17 and in his fourth year of secondary school, Akumbu succeeded in broadcasting live from his room with a signal radius of about 100 meters (.06 miles).

“I was so excited,” he said. “Even though I wasn’t happy with the short distance covered, I was excited that I finally got the formula.”

To extend his broadcast radius, Akumbu in 2010 moved out of his room to his current location, an unused section of his father’s farm. Now, he uses the tall eucalyptus tree as a mast for his antenna.

“I knew that the higher the antenna, the wider the coverage, and it worked well for me,” he says.

Akumbu also increased the power supply for his radio system from two volts to three, using two AA batteries.

Akumbu believes his technical abilities have a divine source.

“I think I have a God-given talent of inventing and knowing things,” he says. “I also learned to repair electronic devices on my own.”

The youngest of 11 children in a polygamous family, Akumbu has done all sorts of odd jobs to raise the nearly 100,000 francs ($174) he has used over the years to build his radio station. His teaching job only pays 36,321 francs ($63) a month.

“I still work jobs in people’s farms just to raise money to buy my radio needs,” he says.

FM Techno broadcasts from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays and from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends. When the equipment is faulty, it can go off air for days. Akumbu does most of the broadcasting, but high school students aspiring to enter journalism also take to the airwaves.

Akumbu hasn’t applied for a broadcasting license from the government, which considers him an independent researcher. If he declares his research complete, the government would tax the station, and Akumbu says he couldn’t afford that.

Lacking a license, Akumbu can’t obtain a permanent frequency. He changes frequencies whenever he discovers that another station’s signal is interfering with his. He has changed the frequency five times since going on air.

Akumbu says his aim in setting up the station was to discourage intertribal wars of the sort he witnessed growing up. In 1994, when a land dispute turned violent, his family’s house was burned down in the clash, he says.

In one of his programs, Akumbu encourages communities to intermarry for the sake of peace.

“Whenever they think of war, the thought of killing their own grandchildren in the next village will hold them back,” he says.

The 1994 tribal clash was the village’s most recent conflict, says Emmanuel Zenabuin, the former chairman of the village’s traditional council. Kejom Ketinguh, the largest and most populous village of four in a subdivision, fought with neighboring Bambili over ownership of a piece of land at their border.

Zenabuin, who lives about two kilometers (1.2 miles) from Akumbu’s station, says he hears Akumbu’s broadcasts clearly.

“I had one favorite station, the BBC,” says Zenabuin, 70. “But today, another station has added to that favorite: That is FM Techno by Akumbu.”

He says he is astonished that a young man in his village could create and operate a radio station. These days, villagers within FM Techno’s range rely on it for information about village meetings, Zenabuin says. Akumbu also conducts on-air discussions of issues raised at council meetings.

“The villagers are able to sit in their houses and know about what is happening in other parts of the village,” Zenabuin says. “That is wonderful.”

Christopher Ntune, a farmer and technician, helped Akumbu, a longtime friend, set up the station.

Ntune says Akumbu’s skills amaze him.

“I am a trained technician, but I cannot do one quarter of what Elvis is doing,” he says. “I did not even believe that he will be able to realize his dream, building a radio station from scratch.”

Ntune says when he first heard Akumbu broadcasting live, he thought he was dreaming.

“I listened to him talking in his room, then I rushed out with the radio to see if the radio was saying the same thing,” Ntune says. “Ah, it was like a miracle. I respect Elvis with all my heart. He is far younger than I am, but his brain is sure bigger than mine.”

Andrew Agiam, a native doctor and herbalist who has lived in Kejom Ketinguh all his life, says he bought his first radio when he learned that Akumbu had started broadcasting.

“I wanted to hear with my own radio and my own ears how a young Kejom boy was broadcasting right here in Kejom,” he says. “It was the most beautiful thing I experienced in 2010.”

Agiam says he loves the afternoon programs on FM Techno in which callers discuss sociocultural issues in the Kejom dialect. He believes the programs will help thwart intertribal wars.

The radio station has also provided training opportunities for aspiring journalists in the village.

Wilson Akuthu, a student at Government High School Kejom Ketinguh, goes to the station almost every day. He reads announcements and hosts talk shows.

“FM Techno has given me the opportunity to know about what goes on in a radio studio,” he says. “It is a golden opportunity.”

Akuthu says he dreams of becoming a journalist, and the station is helping perfect his skills.

“I may not have microphone or studio fright when I finally become a journalist,” he says. “I have beaten all the phobia right here in Kejom Ketinguh.”

Akumbu is the sort of person Cameroon needs if the country is to meet its goal of becoming an emerging market by 2035, says one official at the Ministry of Scientific Research and Innovation.

The International Monetary Fund, one of the organizations that identifies emerging markets, now classifies Cameroon as a low-income developing nation.

The official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the topic, added that his department plans to promote Akumbu’s work by inviting him to attend research and innovation workshops.

“Elvis is a rare breed,” he says.

At the ministry’s invitation, Akumbu has traveled to Bamenda and Yaoundé to attend two regional and two national symposiums. He was awarded certificates of excellence at the national level.

Dreaming of advancing his skills, Akumbu is applying for scholarships to technical schools in the U.S. and China.

He wants to set up community radio stations in other villages to ease communication and promote sociocultural activities.

“By installing radio stations in as many rural areas as possible, I strongly believe that I’m going change many lives,” he says.

For now, Akumbu hopes to extend the reach of his radio to the entire village. But his dream extends only as far as his finances allow.

“I need money to build permanent structures,” he says.

A tree isn’t the most reliable mast for his antenna. It sways in strong winds, affecting the quality of the broadcast signal.

Even so, it’s the only mast he has, and it’s at risk. His parents might cut it down to raise money, he says. That’s what they did to a similar tree a few years ago.

That money paid Akumbu’s school fees.