In the World's Rural Outposts, A Shortwave Channel to God

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 7, 2007

HOMOINE, Mozambique -- As dusk fell deep in a forest of mango and palm trees, Jaime Jeremias Matsimbe sat on the rose-colored dirt and hand-cranked a shortwave radio, looking for the word of God.

He wound the little plastic handle round and round, charging the radio like winding a watch, and soon a preacher's voice boomed across a courtyard filled with goats and turkeys. Twenty miles from the nearest paved road, Matsimbe smiled as he listened to a Texas preacher's sermons about Jesus and Saint Paul, translated into a local language spoken only in the southern African backcountry.

"I love that this person has brought us this message," said Matsimbe, 59, a farmer with 24 grandchildren, whose native language, Xitshwa, is spoken by only a million or so people. "It makes us feel like there is somebody who cares for us."

From the forests of Africa to the deserts of Mongolia and the Middle East, there have never been more religious radio networks and stations broadcasting more programming in more languages to more places. While the globalization of faith has increasingly been driven by the Internet and satellite television, religious radio broadcasters are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on one of the world's oldest methods of mass communication.

"In the developing world, many people find that radio is about the only mechanism that is available," said Robert Fortner, a specialist in religious broadcasting and director of the U.S.-based Media Research Institute. "They hang on to it the way people hang on to a life raft after a tsunami."

Radio is helping drive the growth of religion worldwide as religious broadcasters expand the popularity, reach and influence of their churches. In the world's most distant corners, they are reaching millions of people largely cut off from the world by money, distance and language.

"These programs connect people to a world that they otherwise have no access to," Fortner said. "They indicate to these folks that someone 'out there' cares enough about them to prepare programs in their own language and speak to them about their own struggles."

To "reach the unreached" in rural areas where electricity is a distant dream and even batteries are a luxury, broadcasters are also distributing hundreds of $50 windup radios. In this small market village about 300 jaw-jarring miles northeast of the capital, Maputo, the local United Methodist and Anglican pastors received new radios last month and now gather parishioners to listen to evangelical programs.

"This brings more people to the church," said Xavier Muaga, the Anglican pastor. "Some people started going to church and gave up, and these programs convince them to come back. Others who have never been to church hear this and are convinced to become Christians."

A Filter of Faith

Much of the growth in religious radio began with a global trend toward government deregulation of the airwaves in the 1990s, according to industry analysts. Graham Mytton, who headed the BBC's international market research for more than 25 years, noted that Africa had just two radio stations that were not state-owned at the end of the 1980s; now it has at least 3,000.

Since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, about 2,000 private radio stations, many of them carrying religious programming, have sprouted in the 15 former Soviet republics, where religious worship was all but banned. "Things gradually changed, then became a gallop," Mytton said.

Christianity, the world's largest religion with about 2 billion adherents, has the most massive presence on global religious airwaves. Christian programs range from Bible readings to radio seminary courses for undereducated pastors. Muslim stations broadcast Koranic recitations, news and music. Hindus, Buddhists and followers of many other religions also sponsor radio broadcasts around the world.

In addition to the spiritual, religious broadcasters stress the practical, with programs on HIV-AIDS, basic health and sanitation issues and family counseling.

On some stations, world news is delivered through a filter of faith. During last year's controversy over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper, some preachers on the Islamic radio airwaves helped stoke the global Muslim outrage that led to violent protests around the world.

Of the world's 314 radio stations licensed to broadcast across borders, 83 -- or 26 percent -- are religious stations, according to the World Radio TV Handbook. At least a dozen major international Christian radio networks operate in hundreds of countries and broadcast in at least 360 languages. Most are from the United States -- which has more than 2,000 domestic religious radio stations -- but others originate in Britain and Sweden. Scores of smaller international broadcasters work in nations from Canada to Chile to the Philippines.

U.S.-based Trans World Radio, a nondenominational Protestant network, is among the largest. It has a $40 million annual budget, raised through donations, and broadcasts in more than 200 countries. Trans World broadcasts on about 2,800 stations globally, up from 1,600 in 2001, said Bill Damick, a network official based in Britain. Damick said Christian programming -- on stations sponsored by denominations from the Seventh-day Adventists to the Vatican -- is growing fastest in Africa and Latin America, but it also is booming across Asia and Eastern Europe.

Islamic radio networks, largely funded by governments, have also grown in recent years across the Middle East, Africa and Asia, particularly in remote places. They tend to focus heavily on readings of the Koran, especially in nations such as Saudi Arabia where government and religion are deeply intertwined.

In contrast to the evangelical nature of Christian radio, Islamic radio tends to focus on people who are already Muslims. Ebrahim Moosa, associate director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center, said the radio has advanced many Muslims' knowledge of and devotion to their faith. Many Muslim stations are increasingly mixing in Islamic talk shows and pop music, especially in Jordan and other more secular societies. Stars such as British sensation Sami Yusuf, a 27-year-old Islamic pop singer known for lyrics praising Allah, are spicing up the airwaves.

Several major Hindu radio networks in the United States, Europe and India mix prayers with pop music, entertainment news from Bollywood and shows about vegetarian cooking. Buddhist radio stations beam Tibetan chants and news around the world, including clandestine broadcasts into Tibet. Government, commercial and religious broadcasters have long used shortwave to reach into closed societies such as Cuba and Burma, which recently has been convulsed by anti-government protests led by Buddhist monks.

"It is the only way that many people inside Burma get information," said Htet Aung Kyaw, an editor with the Democratic Voice of Burma, a secular radio station based in Norway that beams shortwave news into Burma.

In places such as Mozambique, which opened its airwaves to private broadcasters in the early 1990s, the FM dial is a virtual preachers' bazaar. In Maputo, listeners can choose among a Catholic station, two Protestant stations and a new Islamic station.

Community Radio of Homoine began broadcasting at the end of 2001, and last year Trans World Radio began buying airtime on the station for a new Christian program about HIV-AIDS, which is rampant in this part of Africa. "It Takes Courage" was a drama, produced by a local pastor using local actors, that stressed morals, marital fidelity and abstinence from teen sex. Many people here said the program was their first real AIDS education in their own language.

"It was better than a pamphlet that said, 'Use a condom,' " said Hussene Algy, the radio station's program director. "This reached illiterate people who knew very little about HIV-AIDS, and it taught them to fear AIDS the way they fear the devil."

Solace 9,000 Miles Away

About five miles outside Homoine, down a narrow track of deep white sand passing through a forest, Matsimbe lives in a small cluster of houses with concrete walls and palm-thatched roofs. During Mozambique's 16-year civil war, which ended in 1992, these woods were battlegrounds. A field of land mines just beyond Matsimbe's property was not cleared until two years ago.

At night, the only light comes from a kerosene lantern or the moon. During the three-month rainy season, Matsimbe's family stores rainwater in a concrete tank. But for the rest of the year, they fetch it from a river more than an hour's walk away. The toilet is a trench in the sand.

Radio is the only entertainment.

"We have nothing else to do," said Matsimbe, tall and lean with graying hair and a broad smile.

Radio has also reshaped the religious landscape of Mozambique. The country gained its independence from Portugal in 1975, but within two years was racked by the civil war, which made it almost impossible for foreign missionaries to work safely. During those years, radio was virtually their only means of evangelizing. It apparently worked, contributing to the rising number of Christians in a nation where traditional tribal beliefs once dominated.

The World Christian Database says that of the country's nearly 20 million people, about half practice traditional beliefs, 40 percent are Christian and 10 percent are Muslim. Other sources estimate that the Muslim population is at least 20 percent.

In the gathering darkness one recent evening, Matsimbe set a few old metal chairs in the middle of his courtyard. His wife cooked dinner over an open fire next to the rusted remains of Matsimbe's 1974 Ford, which now serves as a straw-filled henhouse.

A line of plump turkeys returned from the bush, apparently sensing dusk and dinner. Matsimbe's 11-year-old grandson, Liron, led a dozen goats home on rope leashes. Roosters crowed, a skinny dog slept and the dying light fell like soft red haze.

Robert Zitsanza, Matsimbe's pastor from the United Methodist church in the village, was visiting with a windup radio of his own, which he had been given a few weeks before by Trans World Radio.

Matsimbe leaned in close and twisted the tuner, scrolling up and down the shortwave dial of the pastor's set, finding English, Japanese, Chinese and Spanish amid the static and squawk. He was searching for his favorite show, the one he has been listening to several nights a week since he discovered it three years ago.

And soon, the radio's signal was clear and strong -- Matsimbe had found the Texas preacher.

In the African darkness 9,000 miles from Dallas, he settled down to listen to a sermon written by Texas pastor J. Vernon McGee, perhaps the most popular personality on the global Christian airwaves.

The program, "Thru the Bible," each day interprets a Bible verse in an old-fashioned, folksy manner. It has been translated into 108 languages. Hundreds of hours of McGee's recorded sermons are heard by millions of radio listeners every day in 219 countries.

McGee's reach is unmatched, even though he has been dead since 1988.

"Thru the Bible" is funded by McGee's followers and listeners, who have donated everything from dollar bills to multimillion-dollar inheritances to keep his legacy alive, according to officials at the program's Pasadena, Calif., headquarters.

What Matsimbe actually hears most nights is a Mozambican preacher who has translated McGee's sermons into local African dialects. It is the only program on the shortwave dial in the Xitshwa language and the only one Matsimbe listens to.

He sat rapt, nodding, listening to the preacher's words about Saint Paul, which stressed the importance of living by Christian values every day, not just at Sunday services. "It makes me feel good," Matsimbe said. "I liked it when Paul was talking about being a servant of Jesus. I want to be like Paul myself."

Matsimbe was born Catholic but converted to the Methodist Church as an adult, partly, he said, because of the influence of Christian radio. He now walks an hour to attend church in Homoine each Sunday. He feels that the nightly radio broadcasts "complete" the pastor's Sunday sermons.

"It explains things well," he said, holding his young granddaughter in his lap. "It gives us more than the Bible. It talks about how to live. It adds to what we are taught by our parents and our pastors. I learn about forgiveness. It teaches us to live better."

Matsimbe said the radio program has helped him raise children and settle disputes with neighbors. That kind of help is hard to come by in the woods of Mozambique, he said.

In the glow of brilliant sparkling starlight, Matsimbe said the messages beamed in on the radio have made him a more faithful Christian and a more regular churchgoer. As he looked off into darkness, broken only by the dim light of cooking fires here and there, many of his neighbors were also gathered around their radios out there in the African night, listening.

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