Back in 2011, when Alphonse Nekwa Makwala started reporting on the Congolese presidential election, he had no idea that his TV reports were building the foundations for a school. Alphonse is a multi-talented reporter based in Matadi, the biggest city in the province of Bas-Congo. He runs the local JHR press club and the independent news website InfoBasCongo.net, and he freelances for the Syfia Grands Lacs press agency. He is always on the lookout for stories with strong human rights focuses.
During the presidential election campaign, Alphonse investigated how people with disabilities – especially people with hearing and speech impairments – exercise their right to vote. And what he found was shocking. Most people with disabilities lived in poverty, because they couldn’t find a job. And because most news about the elections came through radio or TV broadcasts, people with hearing disabilities had no access to information about the candidates or their platforms. Very people with disabilities bothered to vote because they barely knew who the candidates were. Clearly, people with hearing and speech disabilities were being excluded from national political participation and government representation. Alphonse also reported that the local government had not released funds that were promised for building a school for hearing and speech impaired people.
When Alphonse’s story was broadcast on national TV in 2011, people in Bas-Congo started to act. Church leaders, teachers, and advocates for the disabled community pressed political parties to include hearing impaired people in their election campaigning. They demanded that the government release the money for the promised school. Some change happened quickly. The provincial governor stepped in and required the leading regional TV station to provide sign-language interpretation during news broadcasts and popular TV shows. Suddenly, hearing-impaired people could watch the evening news with their families and keep up to date with the election. But some change took longer. After months of pressure, the government released the money promised for the school. The land was bought, and, slowly and carefully, the school building was constructed. And then the money ran out. There was a school, but no funds to pay teachers or buy equipment. Finally, in 2014, the provincial government of Bas-Congo started to support the school’s operational costs. With a budget of about $1,200 Canadian Dollars every month, the school is now up and running. Children with hearing and speech disabilities are getting an education and learning valuable skills.
It is rare that political reporting can build a school, but Alphonse’ broadcasts in 2011 were the starting point for sustainably improving education and helping a marginalized group of people exercise their right to political participation.