Ethics & Engagement across the Wellcome Trust Major Overseas Programmes

Strategic media partnerships in health research: Radio listening clubs in Malawi

By Sally Theobald, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, UK

The Malawi Broadcasting Corporation – MBC - has established 122 radio listening clubs across the nation. MBC works through district and traditional structures to establish these clubs, which aim to bring the voices and experiences of Malawian communities to the airwaves. Programme director, Joshua Chirwa, explained how radio listening clubs work to engage different individuals within communities, uplift livelihoods and support community groups with new skills both in radio and programme management.

In 2012, the Malawi Liverpool Wellcome (MLW) Major Overseas Programme entered into a strategic partnership with MBC to link communities – through radio listening clubs – to health research. Following intensive consultations at community level the MLW community engagement teams identified key priority health topics for an interactive health radio programme called Umoyo N’kukambirana. The programme is aired every Saturday for 1 hour on the major national broadcaster the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation radio 1. The objective of the programme is to promote engagement in health and health research in order to raise awareness and support improved health seeking behaviours. Each month features a different health topic and this month the focus is on the role of traditional and modern medicine.

As part of the Global Health Bioethics Network Summer School  we visited a radio listening club running out of the Community Initiative for Tuberculosis Education (CITE) Community Based Organisation in Bangwe, Limbe. CITE currently produces a drama series that is featured during the radio programme.  CITE chairperson, Mr. Frasco Dzimbiri, introduced the organisation to us and we were then treated to a live recording of passionate CITE members acting out a drama on health seeking for a sick man – Mr. Twothousand – who is sick with cough and exhaustion. In the story, two carpenters, visit their friend, Mr. Twothousand, who is being cared for at home by female family members. He has visited a traditional healer and got powerful medicine but is not yet getting better.

Interweaved with a sub-plot about tasty home brewed beer in a neighbouring house, one carpenter advises Mr. Twothousand to seek formal care. The plot draws on guidelines issued by the MLW community engagement team, but is further developed and enriched by experience and acting skills of CITE community members, who bring the nuance of their experience to the story.  MLW media lead, Greyson Chapita, explains that the plot aims not to “trash” traditional medicine, which is clearly valued at community level, but to encourage formal health care seeking for prolonged cough.

The story will be aired in a Saturday slot in the coming weeks. Broadcaster, Philip Business, asks researchers to comment and respond to the issues brought up in the story and listeners are invited to call in with their own experiences and concerns. What is unique about this programme is that its live, encourages two way engagement between health experts and the community through live telephone calls, says the MLW Science Communication Manager Tamara Makawa. This innovative approach connects community groups and researchers in a process of dialogue and exchange. There are clear parallels with exciting approaches in other Wellcome funded Major Overseas Programmes. For example the Oxford University Clinical Research  Unit in Vietnam has partnered with both communities and media production company, Fact and Fiction Films, to produce digital storytelling to depict community experiences  and perceptions of health risk of working with animals. We look forward to more inspiring experiences of using media to connect communities and build bridges amongst diverse stakeholders to support health and wellbeing.


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