MUGERA: BBC Swahili’s East Africa homecoming

Monday August 11 2014

By Solomon Mugera, The Citizen Guest Columnist

It is now official. The entire BBC Swahili service radio programming and production team will be based in East Africa.

This is truly a homecoming for one of the BBC’s most loved and successful language broadcasting services.

BBC Swahili’s $1m state-of-the-art broadcasting facilities will be officially inaugurated in the Tanzania’s commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, today.

It is from here that the flagship breakfast show, Amka na BBC, will be produced. The afternoon show ‘Dira ya Dunia’ and the late evening ‘Leo Afrika’ move from London to Nairobi.

This is an epic achievement after an historic journey for BBC Swahili service which was established more than 50 years ago to serve what was then colonial East Africa.

On the evening of June 27,  1957, the voice of Oscar Kambona, a Tanzanian student studying in the UK, was heard on shortwave radio announcing, “This is London. Today, for the first time ever, BBC London sends greetings to all the residents of East Africa, in their own language. Asalaam aleikum.” 

The launch came as countries in sub-Saharan Africa fought against colonial rule. The year 1957 brought with it immense political changes across sub-Saharan Africa. It had seen Ghana become the first black African country to attain independence, setting pace for the rest of the region.

Since its launch on that day in June 1957, BBC’s Swahili Service has been at the forefront of covering major events including independence struggles and celebrations in Tanzania (then Tanganyika), Uganda, Kenya, DR Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.  In the years to come, there were numerous defining moments for BBC Swahili. 

Audiences will remember BBC Swahili’s in-depth, up-to-the-minute coverage of the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998.

And before that, who can forget the 1979 war between Tanzania and Uganda? That is when Idi Amin dared to invade Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s backyard and led to him being thrown out of power and into exile, first to Libya then Saudi Arabia where he died.

That event was revisited 30 years on in a week-long special broadcast in April 2009. BBC Swahili service brought together sons of the two presidents (Mwalimu Nyerere and Idi Amin) for the first time since the 1979 events. Amin’s son, Jaffar, travelled nearly 500 kilometres from his home in Arua, northern Uganda to meet Nyerere’s son Madaraka in Butiama, north western Tanzania. They shook hands and hugged.

BBC Swahili is renowned for hard-hitting, gripping and memorable coverage of events as well as investigative and insightful reporting.  Nothing drives that point home more emphatically than the 2008 investigation into vicious attacks and in some cases grisly murder of albinos in Tanzania.

In a first for the region, BBC Swahili reporter Vicky Ntetema scoured the underbelly world of witchdoctors who promised to deliver albino blood, hair, leg and palms for $2000. They claimed that albino body parts could be used in portions to make people rich.  The investigation led to a public enquiry and police got involved.  During the 2010 Tanzania elections, BBC Swahili partnered with Radio One and RFA to run a 14-hour daily election special for a week, delivering a comprehensive reporting of the election to audiences throughout the region and around the world.

 In just under 20 years and with four different editors – from Kari Blackburn, Tido Mhando, Solomon Mugera (pictured) to Ali Saleh - BBC Swahili service has grown to become one of the most progressive language services within the BBC and beyond. Hardly a year passes without the service doing something ground-breaking or trailblazing. Sample this:-

 • BBC Swahili was the first service to move part of its radio broadcasts to its target market in East Africa when Amka na BBC moved to Nairobi in 2006.

 • It became the first BBC World Service language service to broadcast the English Premiership and later the 2010 World Cup in Kiswahili.

• BBC Swahili’s 50th anniversary celebrations that were held in Dar es Salaam and attended by President Jakaya Kikwete were broadcast live not only on radio but also on Television across East Africa. A first for any international broadcaster.

• It was the first international language service to launch a daily news and current-affairs bulletin on television. BBC Swahili service has established a commanding lead across all platforms: radio, internet, mobile and now TV.

In addition to the intensive coverage of events in the target region, BBC Swahili also brings other African and world stories to its audiences across platforms, making the service a one-shop stop for all news, current affairs and human-interest stories. 

 With production facilities Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and DR Congo, BBC Swahili service is in an even stronger position to offer work experience opportunities to young journalists and broadcasters across the region. That’s another first for BBC Swahili service.

Solomon Mugera is the BBC Africa Editor