Latin America and the Caribbean

San Francisco Examiner

Children's Radio Station Gives Voice to Haiti's Future
by Lyn Duff

PORT-AU-PRINCE: "You're listening to Radyo Timoun, Port-au-Prince, Haiti."

With those words, the first children's radio station in Haiti went on the air in early January. In a country where 40% of the population is under 15, Radyo Timoun -- Creole for "Children's Radio" -- calls itself "the voice of Haiti's future."

Started by a group of street children from the Lafanmi Selavi orphanage, the radio station is funded by private donations and supported by President Aristide. It gives kids a say in politics at a time when the Haitian press is enjoying new freedoms. With some 85% of Haitians illiterate radio is the medium with its finger on the pulse of the population. (Even President Aristide spends his evenings listening to call-in shows.)

Lafanmi Selavi (which means "the family is life"), home to 150 street boys ranging in age from four to 15, was started in 1986 by Aristide, before the military coup that deposed him in 1991. During the coup it was firebombed twice, and four boys and a staff member died.

Today the boys at Lafanmi Selavi are as politically aware as many three times their age. Terms like "bourgeoisie" and "International Monetary Fund restrictions" are tossed around liberally at the radio station, even as kids weave stories about their personal lives into their political commentaries.

The young staff are already voicing their opinions on everything from the new national police force to why school should be free. "We need to be able to freely elect a government that's non-corrupt," one 12-year-old who came to the orphanage in December said in a recent broadcast. "That's a fundamental right, and only a non-corrupt government will prevent the killings by the army. My family was beaten and raped, and many of us were murdered in the streets by the Macoutes (the feared paramilitary that ruled Haiti during the coup d'etat)."

At 3: 30 on a recent afternoon, 12 boys sat in a third-floor office preparing for one of the daily five p.m. broadcasts. Most spoke French, Creole, and some English. About half were dressed in blue checked school uniforms, the other half in dirty, torn street clothes. Several young people pored over newspapers and notes, writing the news headlines. Two boys practiced reading a commentary about the poor quality of professional sports in Haiti, as others brainstormed questions for an interview about Carnaval. "It's good that we have a voice through the radio," said 15-year-old Ti Sony, "because children really are the future in my country. And we should be able to tell what we think."

With its lively but unpolished mix of Haitian rap, news, interviews, commentaries, and live music from the 12-member Lafanmi Selavi rock band, Radyo Timoun is like nothing you'd hear on National Public Radio. A group of former street children sing about having "no foundation" from which to grow, followed by news headlines about UN troops and a recent shooting, followed by "man on the street" interviews about what kids like about school, followed by "Dr. Max" discussing health and hygiene, followed by a commentary about the garbage on the streets of Port-au-Prince.

It's a bit overwhelming at first, but rounded out with a little reggae and some Michael Bolton, Radyo Timoun gets people to sit up in their chairs and listen to kids. In a country with more than 250,000 children living on the street, nothing could be more urgent.

In one recent commentary, 18-year-old Laronce opened with an intimate account of his childhood: "I remember when I was living on the streets. My heart would break when I saw other children going to school and participating in activities myself and other children living on the streets could never do. It's humiliating, because people who see you on the streets treat you like an animal, and you can do nothing to defend yourself. Instead you just feel very sad, and the sadness never leaves you."

Then he shifted seamlessly to a discussion of politics: "We need laws to force the government to take care of these children. They have a right to live a life like children who have parents. I would like other street children to have the chance to become the man I am today. I say this in the hopes that children in all countries can live."

"Think what it would have been like if we had had a radio station during the coup d'etat," Laronce says off the air. "Children see and understand more than adults do and our voice is more sincere. If we had been able to speak, the world would have listened, and fewer of us would have died."

YO! (Youth Outlook), 450 Mission Street, Room 204, San Francisco, CA 94105
Tel (415) 243-4364
Email Nell Bernstein, editor

Copyright C 1996 Youth Outlook / Pacific News Service. All Rights Reserved. Do not reprint our articles without our permission.

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