Walking through the provincial village of Chageen, it’s easy to spot the radio station. A freestanding antenna tower, situated next to a small building behind a stone fence, rises 100 feet above the trees and everything else in the village.The broadcast tower for 95.2 FM shines bright in the sky over the village of Chageen. The glowing red light at the top of the tower serves as a signal that the station is on the air.
The building itself is a unique piece of engineering, designed to keep people and equipment cool — an important attribute in a place where the temperature regularly reaches 110 degrees Fahrenheit. The station was built about three and a half feet underground, following the idea that basements stay cool naturally. Its cement slab ceiling also serves as a cooling system. On particularly warm days, workers flood the ceiling with about 100 gallons of water, keeping the studio at a tolerable 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
Inside the radio station, TEAM missionary Mark Vanderkooi and his wife Diane sit at simple tables strewn with basic broadcast equipment. A few laptops, headphones and microphones lie among bundles of wires and small sound boards. Books, Bibles, CDs and cassette tapes are stacked neatly on shelves.
The Vanderkoois, both highly trained linguists, came to Chageen to work among the Kwong people in the 1990s. The Kwong tribe lives in a small crescent- shaped area between two major rivers running through the Sahel, a broad, semi-arid strip of territory that runs clear across Africa just south of the Sahara Desert. Although the seeds of the gospel were planted in the region during the 1960s, today less than 5 percent of the Kwong tribe is Christian — only around 800 to 1,000 believers in a population of 20,000.
Mark and Diane’s primary ministry is translating the Bible into the Kwong language, a crucial task that takes time and patience. In addition to translation, Mark and Diane spent a considerable amount of time in their early ministry years traveling to the 25 small churches scattered around the region. As they started to make progress on the Kwong Scriptures — to date, 47 percent of the New Testament has been translated — they felt the work wasn’t making a lasting impact on the Kwong people.
“We would spend several weeks each year traveling around all these villages in outlying areas,” Mark said. “We’d teach and we’d preach and we’d disciple the pastors and the elders; then we’d go to another village and do more of the same. You had very little to show for when it was all said and done, just because of the sheer reality of dozens of villages and only two of us.”
Defining the Needs
As Mark and Diane considered how to best focus their time and efforts, it became apparent that a written form of the Scriptures wasn’t going to reach many people. Like most of the tribes living on Chad’s Sahel plains, the majority of the Kwong people — about 99 percent of the women and 70 to 80 percent of the men, according to Diane — can’t read or write.
“God gave us the written word,” Diane said. “But if people can’t read it, it’s not going very far with what we can do. There had to be a way that Kwong men and women who could not read Scripture could hear it.”
While working in Chad’s capital city of N’Djamena in 2002, the Vanderkoois met a fellow Christian worker who had started a Christian radio station. They realized that a low-power, low-cost radio station was an ideal solution for their region. A radio station would reach many people, all at once. Radio broadcasts in the Kwong language would bypass the illiteracy issue and maybe even encourage people to learn to read. Small short-wave radios, available at local markets, were relatively inexpensive to purchase and easy to operate. Many households already had radios, which they used to listen to the national Chadian broadcast and to share community news.
Once Mark and Diane decided that a radio station was a viable option, things progressed quickly due to several circumstances they attribute to the Lord’s divine providence.
The leader of Chad’s High Commission for Communication was a Christian who supported the idea of a Christian radio station in Chageen. In late 2002, Mark submitted the formal request to the Commission for a vernacular radio station that would broadcast in five languages. The Commission approved the license for the station just a few months later, something unheard of when dealing with Chad’s bureaucracy.
Mark and Diane got cold feet within 24 hours of receiving their license. Building a radio station required technical expertise and the purchase of large, expensive equipment such as an antenna tower, antenna parts, solar panels, a transmitter and studio gear. And they were up against a tight deadline. Even as the license was being granted, a shipping container was sitting in Portsmouth, Va., being prepped for shipment to Chad. Another container large enough to handle the necessary parts wasn’t scheduled for shipment for another four or five years.
As news of the project spread, the Lord provided in a big way. Former TEAM director George Murray put the Vanderkoois in touch with a media ministry called Back to the Bible, who had helped Murray establish a radio station in Italy during his service there. As it so happens, the Vanderkoois’ proposal for a radio ministry arrived at Back to the Bible just when the organization was praying about establishing a radio station in sub-Saharan Africa. Back to the Bible helped raise funds for the ministry, collecting more than $20,000 in gifts from their listeners after featuring the Vanderkoois on the air.
Mark also reached out to Galcom, an audio technology ministry. They, too, had been looking for ways to get involved in rural Africa and were happy to support the radio station project. Galcom provided technical assistance and helped purchase the antenna tower and antenna elements, which arrived at the shipping container in Virginia just a few days before it was set to sail for Africa.
Construction on the FM radio station began in early 2005. Along with Chadian laborers, Diane’s parents and two different work teams from the Vanderkooi’s supporting U.S. churches provided expert help. Galcom’s Dave Casement, an engineer, came to Chad and was instrumental during the final construction phase.
The radio station, call sign FM 95.2, has a broadcast range of about 50 to 70 kilometers (approximately 30 to 40 miles), depending on the weather. It’s powered by solar panels on the tin roof built a few feet above the concrete slab ceiling and a 400-watt wind generator mounted to the antenna. Three staff members, a full-time engineer and two part-time volunteers, help operate the station on a day-to-day basis while the Vanderkoois create and edit programs. The two rooms that house the studio and equipment sit below ground to keep the temperature cool during the hot season.
“We went on the air in January 2006,” Mark said. “In no time, the station became like a pillar of the whole community. The Kwong people could not have been more thrilled at having a radio station in Chageen. It puts them on the map and elevates their language in the eyes of the surrounding villages.”
The Vanderkoois’ goal is to use the radio station as a tool for transmitting Kwong Bible teaching, and the programming is carefully scheduled to reach families during optimum times. Typical programs include broadcasts of the whole book of Acts as radio theater or telling the story of Jonah. The 6 a.m. broadcast is a morning devotional time for parents and children, with Scripture readings and Christian music, while the evening broadcasts are intended for families coming together after a day of work.
“They’re hard-working people,” Diane said. “They come back home some time just before sundown, so that’s when we start broadcasting. The men are usually just hanging out after they’ve washed up a bit and are waiting for dinner. The women are usually cooking. It’s time that they’re free to listen to the radio.”
The radio station has more than 3,000 mp3 titles in their library, including Kingdom of God discipleship programs and Old Testament history programs. It broadcasts in four languages, including Chad’s official languages of Arabic and French, plus Kwong and Fulani.
Making an Impact
What started as difficult and slow work 25 years ago is easier now, thanks to the radio station. The Kwong people are responding to the gospel message like never before as it’s being shared in a format they can easily receive and understand.
“[The radio station] has given more credibility to us and our ministry here among the Kwong people,” Diane said. “The gospel goes a lot more places among the Kwong. It gives encouragement to the church, the leaders and laypeople as well.”
FM 95.2’s programming provides good avenues for conversation as Mark and Diane continue to build relationships with the Kwong. It’s also provided opportunities for discipleship. For the past six years, Diane has been working with spiritually maturing Kwong women to produce more than 60 radio Bible classes. Although most of these women can’t read or write, Diane writes the scripts and then reads them out loud. The women then repeat Diane’s words into the recording equipment.
Diane also produces another program designed specifically for women that addresses issues such as parenting, nutrition and hygiene.
“You just pray for God to open the way for people to turn it on, to hear, to not be distracted, to listen to what’s going out,” Diane said. “The radio is a tool toward the end. It’s meant to help illiterate people come to a point of understanding the Word [so] they can grow and desire the Word more.”
Visiting a few families around Chageen, it’s evident that the radio station has become a routine part of life. Groups of people gathered for dinnertime have their radios tuned to the evening broadcast. When technical problems with the transmitter kept FM 95.2 off the air for a month in late 2013, people noticed.
“They were really, really happy when we got back on the air again,” Mark said. “Someone from a faraway village even called to say the new transmitter wasn’t broadcasting clearly and asked it we could fix it. That was encouraging.”
Now in its eighth year of operation, Diane and Mark say there is ample opportunity to expand the radio ministry. They continue to work with Trans World Radio, SIL and other Christian organizations to acquire and create new content. Diane has used her ethnomusicology training to help Kwong musicians craft Kwong Christian music and plans to create more. There’s also a great need to expand the women’s programming to address preventative healthcare issues and other relevant topics. And there is an opportunity to create programs for the Gabri people, who live just six miles south of the studio and frequently marry into the Kwong tribe but don’t understand the Kwong language.
“We pray that God’s kingdom will be furthered among the Kwong through this,” Mark said. “We say, ‘Lord, keep this thing working as long as you want it to be.’ This radio station is a grace.”
- By Lisa H. Renninger
-Photographs by Robert Johnson