An innovative citizen media project is engaging under-served rural constituencies of Plumtree, a border town located in southwestern Zimbabwe, to tell their own stories and share information to build their communities.
The communities of Mangwe and Bulilima reside outside the national information grid and have no access to broadcasting and newspaper services, a situation they believe prevents their participation in local and national development discourses.
However, the “Rural Communities Access to Information Project”, launched by Plumtree Development Trust (PDT) in 2014, has brought unprecedented change in terms of how these communities interact and participate in local development processes.
The project is supported by the second phase of Hivos Southern Africa’s Human Rights Fund (HRF), which Hivos implements on behalf of the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Zimbabwe. The Fund seeks to improve the protection and promotion of human rights in Zimbabwe sustainably through support to civil society organisations. Its first phase ran from May 2012 to December 2013; the second started in January 2014 and will run until December 2016.
One of the notable positive changes of the “Rural Communities Access to Information Project” is that communities are now able to express their needs, successes and challenges using platforms set up by citizen journalists (CJs) amongst them.
These CJs were trained by PDT and equipped with basic journalism and mobile reporting skills to document and share local stories in order to promote social inclusion and public participation in local development.
A citizen journalist story exploring the plight of communities facing water shortages in one of the small villages in Bulilima led ordinary citizens to collaborate with their local authority to drill a borehole to service the community.
“At first we did not understand this project, but when we saw positive results brought by one story reported by a community reporter the community started to take this project seriously,” a local councilor testified during a recent community outreach.
An elderly community reporter Velemini Ncube promotes social inclusion and public participation of women in livelihoods projects through setting up dialogue platforms that she records and sends to PDT for podcasting.
She says by promoting storytelling, particularly on women in farming, most women are now keen to participate in livelihoods projects, and some of them have established thriving gardening clubs.
In Plumtree town, a WhatsApp message crafted and distributed by a CJ led to a demonstration by citizens against poor service delivery, an action that partly contributed to the resignation of the municipal treasurer over alleged mismanagement of public funds.
PDT executive director Thomas Sithole says he is happy that for the “first time in the history our lives, our communities are now able to tell their own stories”.
“As an organisation we believe that the media should not only cover communities, but build them. And this is what we seek to do through this citizen media project,” added Sithole, who believes that access to information is a pre-condition for meaningful civic participation and engagement.