The programme Cheni Cheni N’chiti? (What is the reality?) is, undoubtedly, Malawi’s number one interactive health programmes which is produced and presented by Edward Kankhomba and Mercy Simbi. The programme discusses health issues including sexual and reproductive health, a touchy topic in Malawi’s conservative society.
Over the years, the duo has become comfortable discussing such matters and so has its audience. Audience participation now forms a major portion of the programme, with listeners sharing their views, personal experiences and asking questions through phone, text messaging, Facebook and snail mail.
Over the years, Kankhomba and Simbi have come to know what to expect from their audience. But they were taken by surprise one day in May 2014 when they received this feedback via SMS:
“I have four children and I intended to have two more as my desired number of children was six. But your programme has made me change my mind as it has shown that I am not as capable as I thought of taking good care of the children that I already have. I need to do more. You have helped me make a decision/choice to stick with the four children that I already have. Keep the programme going, we are learning a lot. Thank you.”
One could hear a pin drop as Simbi froze on air, after reading out the message. She could not believe what she had just read.
“While it was not unusual for listeners to send text messages indicating that they have stopped sleeping around, to have someone say they have decided to have a small family on the basis of our programme was so massive we had to go to Machinga to hear it from the horse’s mouth,” says Kankhomba.
In Malawi, having a large family remains a norm. The country’s total fertility rate (TFR), which refers to the average number of children a woman will have in her child-bearing years, is 5.7. In some Malawian cultures, having many children is an indicator of a man’s potency while, in others, children are considered long-term investment vehicles, future income streams of sorts—the more children one has, the more likely she or he is to receive assistance from them in later life.
And the latter is exactly what helped entrench the position of James Banda, the author of the text message. A father of four children, three girls and a boy, Banda, who was born and raised on the banks of Shire River in Liwonde, wanted to have many children.
“I used to envy those who have many children, especially those who would have their children come to help them or send them assistance in times of need. I felt having many children was good because they could support you when you grow old. My plan was to have at least six children,” says Banda, 34, who is also a sheikh in Chindungwa Village, Traditional Authority Sitola in Machinga.
But his wife had a totally different vision of a family. Growing up in the same area, Bertha, 26, says her view of an ideal family size were influenced by a missionary couple that used to come to the area for Sunday service.
“I noticed that they only had two young children. Sometimes they would come with guests from their country who would have a few children too. Although I was young, I could see that it was nice to have a few children.
“From that moment I just wanted to have two children. But when I got married, my husband wanted seven and I resigned myself to that,” she says.
But change came from a very unexpected source. Sometime in 2010, the couple started listening to Cheni Cheni Nchiti? which was started by the Bridge II Project and now continues under SSDI-Communication with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAid).
Little did the couple know that what started as a hobby would end up being a source of positive influence in their lives.
“In the beginning, I must say we found the content of the programme to be rather too explicit, especially when they are discussing matters of HIV and reproductive health. It was difficult to listen while children were around. But as time went by we started liking the straight-talk, no-holds-barred approach because there is no better way of dealing with such issues.
“Today my wife and I rush to the radio whenever it starts airing and, after the programme, we sit down and discuss the issues that have been raised,” he says
And it so happened that one day, the featured topic was family planning. As usual, at the end of the broadcast, the couple started to discuss what they had just heard on the programme. While they agreed with the programme message on the benefits of maintaining a small family, especially considering the challenges they were facing in looking after the children they already have, they were not sure which family planning method to use.
After discussion and mutual consent, Bertha started using an injection family planning method. The couple is now considering a permanent family planning method, with vasectomy topping the list, so they do not have to worry about forgetting to get the injection on time.
“But I need to learn more about this method before I proceed. I am especially anxious to know whether vasectomy has any negative effects on one’s performance in bed. I intend to visit Banja la Mtsogolo (BLM) clinic at Liwonde for a thorough consultation,” says James.
Meanwhile, the couple remains resolute in their decision, with Bertha now clocking close to two years on contraceptives.
“The advantages are huge. Clothing the children is much easier, now, and so is feeding them. On my part, I used to have problems of terrible bouts of dizziness during pregnancy, but I am glad it is all in the past, now. It used to be terrible,” says Bertha.
The couple continues to participate actively in Cheni Cheni N’chiti? by providing feedback through SMS. Following the visit by the producers, the couple was featured on the programme much to the amazement of neighbours and friends.
“Getting our text messages read on the programme was great, but actually getting interviewed was just awesome! Our friends cannot stop asking us how we came to be on air and we tell them that it just happened. But we know it is because we remain actively involved in the programme,” says James.
The couple willingly shares what they have learned with others who reach out to them, but wish everyone had access to the radio programme as they do.
Their wish is to have a radio listening club where they could bring people together to listen to the programme and then discuss issues raised therein.
Meanwhile, Cheni Cheni N’chiti? continues to grow in popularity. The programme, which won the Finalists Certificate Award in the New York Festival World Best Radio Programme in Health/Medical Category (2011), is now among the country’s most-listened to radio programmes with a staggering 37 percent national listenership. The programme airs weekly on a number of radio stations including MBC Radio 1 and 2 FM, Zodiak, Joy, Power FM101, Star FM, MIJ, Livingwaters, Transworld, Radio and Radio Islam; Nkhotakota, Mudziwathu and Dzimwe Community Radio Stations.