The story of a little-known pirate radio station in Zimbabwe

What began as idle village talk over tea and tobacco quickly became reality when the son of my late uncle smuggled in a cheap Chinese radio transmitter from South Korea. For a week what was probably the first independent village radio in Zimbabwe rocked our little, insignificant village.

In our village in Chimanimani, in eastern Zimbabwe, we have never enjoyed the luxury of listening to state radio and television broadcast services from Harare, which is hundreds of kilometres away. This painful predicament has persisted since 1980, when the country became independent. Numerous queries to the radio authorities offered many reasons, but no solutions.

"Your village is mountainous, this hinders radio transmission signals," a cheeky-mouthed government administrator found joy in saying.

"There is too much mist and rain, this clouds short-wave signals," said one self-appointed "communication expert", glorifying the government’s decision to cut off our village from the rest of the country for 30 years.

"You’re too far from Harare to matter and you belong to Zimbabwe’s vanishing Ndau tribe," said one honest bureaucrat, at last decoding the lies of 30 years.

As able and busy-bodied village think-tanks, we reasoned that resistance was futile. Through our own ant-like efforts and innovations we were going to establish our own village radio station. Government approval mattered little. After all, to the fat cats in Harare we didn’t even register on the map. We resolved to forge ahead in the face of stifling bureaucracy and Zimbabwe’s Tehran-like media regulations.

That is more or less how our pirate station, Pachindau People’s Radio, came to a brief life.

We attempted to pull together our meagre resources. A proper radio transmitter to broadcast shortwave and FM would cost us about $12 000. That is an astronomical figure for information-starved villagers used to tuning in to the BBC and Radio Netherlands Worldwide out of desperation.

Our bold-eyed village elder, a survivor of Zimbabwe’s 1970s bitter bush war, recommended that we all commit to selling our cattle, donkeys, goats and hens to pool resources for the transmitter

 

Still, $12 000 was a steep pipe dream. Worse still, Pachindau People’s Radio would fall early victim to government’s viciousness if word got around too fast. We decided to move at lightning speed.

My 30-year-old cousin, who was studying electronic and satellite engineering on a scholarship in South Korea, quickly morphed into the eastern radio Messiah. There were countless types of short-wave radio transmission machines available in South Korea’s bazaars, he helpfully advised. At give away prices, he added. Or even next to nothing, he said.

Taking advantage of the fact that South Korea is one of the most wired countries on Earth, my uncle’s son convinced his college lecturers and fellow students in Seoul that a village somewhere far off in Africa desperately needed a radio transmitter machine.

Accordingly, his classmates and lecturers pulled together some cash and bought him a cheap, second-hand Chinese radio transmitter, which cost a measly $2 500.

When my cousin sneaked the transmitter into Zimbabwe from South Korea, via South Africa, he encountered no problem with starry-eyed immigration officials. None of them had the technical knowledge to understand he was carrying a radio transmitter for an angry far-off village.It was a bio-diesel fuel generator, he said.

When he arrived in the village, ululations and delight were drowned out by bickering. Every sole and soul — from the village herd boy to the overworked grinding mill man — wanted to be a presenter on Pachindau Radio.

After sanity was restored it was agreed that the Pachindau People’s Radio transmitter would be housed on top of the local mountain to give the radio frequencies a longer range in the rough village terrain. The only troubling issue was that Dima mountain is sacred. Its tree-lined surface sometimes burns on its own. Rain-making rituals are frequently carried out in the mountain, with impressive and instant results.

Broadcasts would disturb the spirits of the dead, argued a one-eyed village sorcerer desperate for a consultation fee.

This was brushed aside and Pachindau People’s Radio, with a measly frequency range of 7km, went on air from 6pm to midnight, powered by a diesel generator for seven solid days. Funerals, village weddings, hoe-sharpening ceremonies, folklore beats and, yes, Boni Jovi, as well as cattle-slaughtering notices, were relayed from the mountain broadcast. It brought relief, joy, craziness and fear.

Then disaster struck. Tipped off by the patriotic and ex-combatant supporters of the government in Harare, fiercely breathing blokes claiming to come from the information ministry in the capital turned up at the mountain base in the middle of the night.

The transmission equipment and diesel generator were seized and the village went quiet again, like a serene Jewish cemetery in leafy New York.

Pachindau People’s Radio was dangerously illegal, argued the night raiders. Its mere 7km transmission was cutting into the state radio signals, they explained (even though no state radio signals have ever reached our village).

One of the hard-to-believe rumours is that Pachindau People’s Radio equipment is sitting idly in a government office in Harare, perhaps to strengthen the disintegrating facilities of Zimbabwe’s state radio.

But the most believable rumour says it all: the night raiders were common thieves posing as government operatives to lay their hands on potentially lucrative transmission equipment.

So that’s the story of how Pachindau Radio lived briefly and died suddenly. Or maybe still lives, tucked away somewhere in a thief’s garage being polished for the scrap market.

Kanyi Pamukwendengwe is a Rusitu villager, bachelor and philanthropist.