In 1999, SHEILA KATZMAN was asked by the UN to help develop a radio station to support peacekeeping efforts in Sierra Leone's civil war. In our new episode of How To Build Community - which you can listen to here - she tells us the full story, and speaks about the power of media to transform lives and communities. Here's 7 highlights.
1. Her theatre career began at the National School of Drama in Jamaica.
She had a life-altering moment in a storytelling class that began her love of performance and media. She began to tell a story to the class about her personal life and the difficult experiences she had undergone: ‘I was transformed, I was taken back to a particular time in my childhood… I was relieved of a burden'. It was at this moment that Sheila realised the profound effect that theatre, story and media can have on people. She is now an applied theatre practitioner, and blends this work with radio.
2. When she started working for the UN, she was their first and only female staff member in public information.
Her first peacekeeping mission was in Sierra Leone in 1999, where a civil war had started in 1991 between government forces, tribal groups, and rebel factions. Horrible, violent atrocities were taking place. She describes arriving in Freetown: ‘It was eerie, like a horror movie being played out – and you are part of it now.’
3. A peace treaty doesn’t necessarily mean that peace has been achieved.
The Lome peace accord was signed in 1999, but according to Sheila, ‘people weren’t acting like it had happened.’ The word ‘peace’ written on a piece of paper, handed down from representatives and governments, doesn’t necessarily reflect or dictate the feelings of the people it affects. Violence between factions continued in Sierra Leone.
4. Peace comes from engaging community and bringing people together. ‘You have to speak to people from all walks of life, at all levels of society’, Sheila says. Radio UNAMSIL, which she started as part of the peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone, did just this. Interviewees on the show included government representatives, but also ordinary citizens, and members of the rebel groups such as the RUF and the AFRC. People were sceptical – ‘they thought I was crazy’ – but Sheila was able to successfully bring these warring groups into a room together, ‘just to talk.’
5. Her radio station became a model for subsequent UN peacekeeping missions. Sheila credits the inclusion of opposing groups with the success of Radio UNAMSIL. ‘Radio should be of the people of the country’, she maintains, ‘and the people included the rebels.’ Broadcasting in five different languages, listened to by the President of Sierra Leone and government ministers, her radio station was truly listening to the people and amplifying their voices.
6. People need to feel that they own the media that is speaking to them. Many young people in Sierra Leone, growing up around significant gender-based violence and the use of child combatants, may have never experienced love, Sheila tells us. On one of Radio UNAMSIL’s programmes, listeners called in to ask for advice about love and relationships. The radio station addressed all aspects of life, not just the conflict and violence, bringing people together to build community in sustainable ways.
7. It’s crucial to have strong links between media and community.
Sheila still works in radio, and continues to emphasise the importance of media for engaging communities in the work of organisations that want to build civil society. She said, 'How do we get the broader community to hear if media isn’t integral to what we do?’
You can listen to Sheila's interview in full here.