Monday, February 28, 2011
UPs & DOWNs of RT Fun Community Radio
A Portrait of Frankline Mukwelle, Community Radio Fitter Technician
By James Achanyi-Fontem,
Director of Publication
During one of the trips to Lebialem for supervising the Commonwealth of Learning radio programmes design to educate the population on mother and child health care, James Achanyi-Fontem came across what people describe as a radio genius. That is 30-year-old Franklin Mukwelle,a self-made radio fitter technician. Franklin was in Menji, Lebialem to facilitate the extension of radio sound quality at the hill top, where the community radio station antenna is positioned.
This exercise now gets Lebialem Community radio waves to Dschangin the west region, Mamfe, Ekok, parts of Kupe Manenguba in the south west region of Cameroon, Calabar in Nigeria an Malabo in Equatorial Guinea. In this report, we trace the road map of Frankline Mukwelle’s passion for electronics, which led to his specialistion as radio fitter technician.
Franklin was born in Bakundu village in Meme Division of the South West region of Cameroon. He attended the nursery school in Tiko in Fako Division and later his father enrolled him in the primary school in Mukonje.
His father worked with the Cameroon Development Corporation, CDC, an organization specialized in palm oil production. CDC is the first employer-company in Cameroon and regularly transfers its workers for renovating its plantation teams. This explains why the father of Frankline was transferred to Mbonge, in Meme Division still in the south west region of Cameroon.
This regular transfers made Frankline’s primary school education not to be smooth. His father, a mechanical engineer with the Cameroon Development Cooperation (C.D.C) moved from place to place for maintenance of C.D.C milling factories.
However, Frankline completed his primary school in Muyuka Government Scchool and was admitted in the Government Secondary and High School. He obtained his Ordinary Level General Certificate of Education and later the Advanced Level General Certificate of Education, in G.H.S. Muyuka. With his advanced level certificate, he was admitted in the Anglo-saxon University of Buea, South West region. This university was an imposition to the government of Cameroon, to consolidate the affiliation to the Commonwealth family.
While in secondary and high school, Frankline loved physics as a subject, though he was not very good in Mathematic. At the ordinary level, he majored in Biology, Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry, English, and Geography. At the ‘A’ Level, he did S4 series which includes Biology, Chemistry, Geology and Geography. Unfortunately, Frankline failed in physics at the ‘A’ Level and only qualified for the faculty of Geology at the University of Buea and not the electronic science, which was his passion as a child.
At this point, one would believe that Franklin is performing in a profession far from what he learnt in college and University. Actually he is more interested in mending cables. He explained that from primary school, he was interested in technology and especially the electronic field. As a child, he always wanted to see the person talking in a radio transistor set. He used to believe that if somebody opened a radio, he or she would people inside.
With his persistent curiosity, he opened a radio transistor set donated by his father and only discovered cables and some small boxes. According to Frankline, he was amazed and continued to question why the pieces of instruments put together produced sound. This is how he got inspired and continued his experiments on everything thing that he came across with cables and small boxes. The mechanics of electronics became clearer and clearer only from when he was admitted in secondary school, where the physics subject was taught as one of the subjects.
Again, during physics classes, he showed more interest in electricity. In effect, Frankline was interested in getting things work. It is in the secondary school that he understood that the small boxes were transistors, electrons and devices that combined to produce sound.
When he returned home after classes, he would open the family radio set to identify some of the devices and their functions. The search for knowledge intensified when he started preparing for the Ordinary Level GCE in secondary school. At the age of 16, he already understood that electricity deals with resistors, electronics and he used to pay a lot of attention to his lessons. He could already do small repairs in a transistor radio set by the time he completed secondary school.
His experience started with the manufacture of electronic toys using small batteries, since children have a passion for vehicles. He mounted a toy vehicle with cell batteries which moved and his mates were amazed. People were amazed by my curiosity in small invention with scrap materials picked from dustbin.
At the University, Frankline read geology, though more time was given to activities very connected to physics. Almost all his age mates and friends were enrolled in the physics department. To get his way through, he created friendship with Akollo George, who was a physics student. George borrowed Frankline his notes since he attended electronics classes at the university.
As Frankline read the notes on electronics, he became more enlightened on the subject and his practice improved consequently. During holidays, he would leave Muyuka for Buea to spend some time in the University Library to research on electronic. This was important and paid, because he was already known for repairing and doing maintenance of electronic sets as a small business.
This activity recovered the money for travelling to Buea to use the university library and borrowing books from students studying electronics.
Though enrolled in the geology faculty his interest was elsewhere in another faculty. In the course of reading electronics, he developed fascination for electronic installation projects realisation. He wanted each time to understand how an electronic circuit works. This led to the discovery of how wireless headphones work. He travelled to Douala on several occasions only to look for spare parts and find out about these cost.
His colleagues at the University of Buea were surprised that during the evaluation session on geology, Franklin instead concentrated more on electronics at the library. In the course of reading electronics, he was motivated to understand how electronic circuits are conceived.
The fact that wireless ear phones received sound inspired him. Franklin’s first mounted radio transmitter for operating a community radio station was conceived in 2004. To realize this project, he got some “Do It Yourself” series books from a bookshop in Muyuka on electronics.
This guided him on the process of designing home use communication equipment. The transmitter was built with scrap equipments picked from public dust bins, since he knew the parts he was looking for. He could test their values and functions after extracting from the picked damaged electronic set from the dustbin. Transmitters vary in watts strength and Franklin could conceive equipment of different wave lengths and reception distances.
When Franklin conceived the first transmitter and put it to test in Muyuka, close to a Poultry Training Centre, he had problems with the local administrative authorities because he did not get a license and did not know that he needed one. The radio at a poultry farm in Muyuka covered a distance of over 2 kms on the way to Kumba, and it was listened to in Buea, more than 5 kms away.
He took time to explain to the local authorities of Muyuka, that what they heard was not a radio station, but the authorities did not agree with him. Franklin told them that it was just an experiment and that the transmitter was mounted with pieces of equipment picked from dustbins.
The Divisional Officer (DO) from Muyuka instructed the police of the special branch to investigate on the life of Franklin and monitor the transmitter closely to find out how the broadcast content reflected on the development realities in the area. Its location was well guarded by police.
In effect, Franklin’s transmitter was for music and announcing “lost and found items” of individuals at the beginning. Music was played throughout the day and people visited the transmitter location to make announced and greeted their relatives. The station’s activities were around making fun and later Franklin named the station “Real Time Fun” ( RT Fun), when it had become very popular. The RT Fun station frequency was 97.00 FM.
Franklin’s problems with the police increased with the identification of the station and especially when he initiated the first phone-in shows, during which listeners could call and make or create a joke over music.
This phone-in programme made the station very popular especially as it operated 24/24 hours with nice modern music. At night it was a good source of entertainment for sharing of local information on events of the day.
The DO’s wife used the station to announce and advertise her night dance galas and sponsored weddings. Many people visited the station to request the services of Real Time Fun and to pay for the services. But Franklin refused to take any money for the services rendered because the station had no legal documents or authorization of existence.
People with stores and business shops wanted to use the radio to advertise their products, but Franklin refused. He had been warned by the local authorities after questioning at the police station, not to collect any money. The DO’s brother used the services of the station to advertise his tailoring workshop and others announced the weekly meetings of their groups.
During the phone-in programmes, the frequency of the station’s transmitter was monitored to register the coverage and range of the wave length. It turned out that the station was heard in Malende and some listeners got the signals at a distance of 35kms very clearly. After the audience research, Incidentally Franklin was visited by police officers of the special branch for a second time one early morning.
When the police arrived, they pretended as if they knew nothing about the station. They started by asking for the station manager or the promoter and Franklin told them that, he owned the installation.
He was immediately instructed to dismantle the transmitter and everything connected to it. This was done immediately and the transmitters with other appliances were taken to the police station for a second national security enquiry. Franklin was naïve and had not read much about the law on communication in Cameroon.
It is during questioning at the police station, that Franklin realized that the local authorities feared that the radio station was owned by an opposition political party, especially the installation of the equipment cwas done just ahead of election political campaigns in Cameroon.
Real Time Fun had no connections with a political party and no political news was broadcast from the station. The police wanted to find out whether a political party had hired Franklin to start the radio station. He was never the intention of Franklin to generate a radio that would work for a political organization. All the services rendered were volunteering as humanitarian service for the right to communication. This explains why no money was received for services rendered.
What saved Franklin from going to jail was the report of his ventures on electronic research and appliances.
Franklin kept notes of all his activities undertaken from when the initiative started. He showed the report to the police and after the recording of the statements of Franklin, the report was sent to the DO, who spoke to Franklin on the phone to verify some facts from the report.
The DO apparently did not see any dangerous activities in relation to Franklin’s project and he visit him in the police cell in Muyuka with the Senior Divisional Officer for Fako.
The SDO asked Franklin to say, where he got the money to purchase the parts for building the transmitters. Franklin told him that over 80% was collected from scraps picked from thrown away and unused radio sets picked from the dust bins. After hearing Franklin’s story, he was asked to sign the declaration document and the SDO gave instructions to the police to release him.
The truth is that Franklin was ignorant about the communication law and as a student, he did not see any implications testing radio communication equipment in a remote and local community. The DO of Muyuka later on, invited him to his office and formerly requested that the equipment be reinstalled and that broadcast could continue. The police kept the radio transmitter until after elections and Franklin was told to pay some money as ware house charges at the police station before collecting the electronic equipment.
Franklin told the police that he was a student and did not have money to pay for the charge requested. The commissioner insisted that Franklin had to pay in something. He managed to raise 3000FCFA which was handed over to the police station before the equipment was collected.
After the re-installation of the transmitter, Franklin made another audience research to find out what listeners were saying about its broadcast. When in Buea, he informed his colleagues about the bad incident of disappearance before returning on air. His junior sister witnessed the incident at the station when the police arrived to arrest Franklin. The police collected the equipment and went away with the junior sister of Franklin. It is when Franklin heard the story while in Buea, that he rushed back to report to the DO and he was also arrested.
This time, the DO told Franklin that the existence of RT Fun station almost put him out of job. The DO shouted at Franklin and promised him hell, indicating that Franklin will see the colours of the DO.
Embarrassed Franklin connected the state counsel to give a report and instead discovered that the state counsel had got information on the functioning of an illegal radio station in Muyuka.
The state counsel invited Franklin to his secretariat, while he prepared the document to put him in jail officially the second times. Before sending him to jail, the state council asked the origin of Franklin and the name of the father. Franklin said he was from Bakundu Banga and that his father was of late and that he is an orphan. The sisters of Franklin, Irene and Margaret, saw the state counsel driving their brother away. The interrogation and intimidation of Franklin took place on a Friday because the state counsel wanted him to spend the whole week-end in jail as lesson before his release on Monday. All persons arrested on a Friday for criminal matters are kept in custody during the week end.
Franklin prayed to be released and immediately he left Jail, he decided to pack out of Muyuka with his radio transmitter. He decided never to return there and it took two years for the dust to settle. During that length of time, he never visited his mother who remained in Muyuka.
Franklin’s new destination was Buea, where he sold his first Radio-in-a-box FM transmitter to Revival Gospel Radio. Revival Gospel Radio had bought a broadcasting transmitter that never worked because it was badly installed. He repaired the Revival Gospel Radio transmitter, which was powerful though never heard at a long distance. It was during his stay in Buea that Franklin was discovered and requested to join the first Ocean City Radio. Ocean City Radio is located in three towns of Cameroon, notably Limbe, Kumba and Douala. Franklin serves the three stations as the radio transmitter maintenance technician. The stations in Limbe and Kumba had existed before he was given the duty to install the third station in Douala.
After working with the community radio stations in Limbe and Douala, he returned to Buea to set up radio Bonakanda which was sponsored by UNESCO Cameroon. A radio transmitter of Bonakanda had existed for two years, and each time it got bad, the transmitter had to be taken to Yaoundé for repairs and this was very costly. Franklin brought it back to life and it hardly goes off the air now.
Franklin is specialized in adapting new parts in transmitters that fail and the original parts are not found in the electronic shops in Cameroon.
In the case of Franklin, he will first check the strength of the part that is not functioning, look for an equivalent spare part, which may not be necessary the same model for adaptation. Very aften, after the station requesting assistance from Franklin bought the required parts to be adapted, a small stipend is paid as his motivation and transport fee.
Since Bonakandu FM community radio was set up, the transmitters were never heard for over a year. The promoter doubted the competence of Franklin, but he triggered it o broadcast and it continues to function well for over two years already.
It is from Bonakandu that Franklin left to Menji on the invitqtion of Atabong George and his board to design the Lebialem Community Radio, where I met with Franklin to collect this story. In effect, since Lebialem is an area with over a thousand hills and valleys, a relay transmitter was placed on top of the Letia Hills to facilitate outreach of some distant forest areas of Lebialem. This explains why listeners in Menji and surrounding villages receive the station on 97 meters band FM, while those in distant places get the same programmes on 99.99 meter band FM. It is George Atabong, the programs Manager of Lebialem Community Radio who contacted Franklin in Limbe during one of the trips for the LCR initiative, which later gain the support of the Japanese embassy in Yaoundé, Farm Radio International and today Commonwealth of Learning.
On the other hand, Radio Bonakanda also lniked Franklin to Radio Oku in rhe north west region, because the hill top radio there had similar transmission break downs with several off air episodes. When Franklin returned Radio Oku on air after overhauling the FM transmitter, it was the Presbyterian Christians Radio, CBS Buea that also contacted him due to problems caused by their transmitters.
A technician of Cameroon Radio Television, CRTV, based in Buea in the past assisted CBS with maintenance problems. The assistance ceased due to the transfer of technician from Buea to Yaoundé. Franklin was brought in and he got the transmitter out put updated and the waves are stronger reaching more Christian communities in the south west and its frontiers..
The most recent arrival is Chariot FM, also known as Buea University Campus Radio. At Chariot FM, Franklin has been involved only with simple maintenance issues and signal updates.
Radio Yemba in Dschang is the Community Radio that has called the attention of Franklin to frequent thunder and lightening strikes on their antennas leading to radio station black outs.
Radio Yomba in Dschang is one of Cameroon rural community radios broadcasting with two channels like in the case of Lebialem Community Radio.
Radio Yemba operates a relay transmitterin a distant hill top village from Dschang for greater outreach like Radio Bacham sending out its programmes from Bafoussam. The studio equipments of Radio Yemba were renovated by Franklin through designing of new circuits with greater resistance to high temperatures. In almost all of the stations Franklin intervened, it was observed that problems resulted from operating on the same equipment and studios for very long hours, days, weeks and months without maintenance.
FM Radio stations that stand this challenge of regular broadcast in Cameroon have two studios. Most FM stations now operate 24hours/24 hours. This explains the many break downs of transmitters. Very often, it is also thunder storm and lightening that closes some radio stations like it was the case with the Voice of Manyu, when it operated in Kembong village. Some of the transmitters are described as out-dated and the manufactures do not produce spares anywhere.
This is where Franklin explores his knowledge of creativity in designing new inputs and circuits to get the stations back on the air.
Radio Bonakand relay station used solar energy for running its programmes. The relay station is just a few kilometers out of Buea. The problem here is thatthe batteries accumulating solar energy for the relay station discharges so fast. The installation of a stand-by generator has been suggested to the board of directors as a solution.
Each time one comes across Franklin he is carrying a small travel bag full of small resistance equipment and spare for intervention at any moment. Talking about his plans for the future, he said, settling to open a consultancy office in Limbe is what comes to his mind now. `He is not married and would not like to continue to live a single life. He is also looking for a European partner who can support him and his activities, especially at this moment of community radio expansion. Almost every village in Cameroon wants to own a radio station. As this report was written, a new community radio was being installed at Ekondo Titi plantations in Ndian Division, close to Bakassi Peninsula. .
For all these years, Franklin did not continue studies in University of Buea but worked as a communication development volunteer. He feels that his work has led to the exposure of his talents as a rural community radio maintenance technician. The radio stations assisted have confidence in his skills and now call on him, when there is need. Franklin is also looking for a short training opportunity in Europe or any other continent on radio maintenance for specialisation. Until now, his only reference and research point has been the internet. He keeps googling solutions on the internet and applying the suggestions as days pass.
Asked to talk about the phenomenon of Lighting, he observed that strikes on most of the Community Rural Radio stations remain an uncontrolled devastating phenomenon in Cameroon. Mukwelle Franklin informs management of such station that it is difficult to completely prevent lightening. Even when one buy and installs the best lightening protector on electronic equipment in a radio station, it cannot be 100% guaranteed. The guarantee of a thunder protector placed at a radio station can only give 40% - 60% guarantees.
This is explained by the fact that lightening is electricity discharged from the sky to the ground. He explained that, lightening is electricity that carries millions of volts of power with it in some cases. It can be evaluated in billions of volts of electricity.
If the power of one lightening strike could be harnessed or put together, the electricity discharged from the sky can be used by one single home for one year and more. Most bush fares are caused by lightening. Thunder is the end result of a lightening strike. To explain in simple terms, we have the sky and the ground with an antenna (pylon) standing on it. The electricity charged from the sky is positive and it is attracted to the ground which is negative or zero. The positive change attracted by the zero gives the results we get, which most often is destructive.
The electricity collides with air molecules to give the sparks we see when lightening strikes.
By the fact that light travels faster than sound, that Is, why the sound produced as thunder is heard when lightening has already done the damage.
When the lightening from the sky is attracted by the antenna directly, there is very little any engineer can do. No installation will stop it. Most of the installations used to protect lightening assist in directing stray discharges to the ground and not the direct type of electricity from the sky. Thunder protectors are always sharp pointing objects to harness the electricity from the sky.
The sharp pointed instrument is connected to a cable to facilitate direction of the electricity to the ground which is zero. The cable is buried in the ground to facilitate this connection, which leads to reduction of damage. In Lebialem for example, the air is the medium through which the electricity moves, especially as the topography is made of hills and valleys. During the dry season, the amount of water in the air is small and does not facilitate the conduction of the electricity to the ground. Since the Lebialem area is hilly, it is a better attraction to lightening and thunder. During the raining season, lightening strikes are more frequent. Lightening will easily attack the houses on hills, than those in the valleys. During the raining season, the radio stations equipment attracts water. Electricity and water do share common ground for attraction.
About wave length ranges, he explained the different ranges of transmitters by saying that the weaker the watt, the less distance the radio can be heard. However, he added, it should be noted that depending on the topography, a small transmitter of 5 KW can cover a distance of 200 km if the signals are not obstructed. One could expect that only 100 watts equipment should go that much. This means that the place of installation of a radio transmitter is very important. It is the antenna that sends out the signals from the transmitter.
The rule is that “the stronger the wattage, the stronger the sound waves go”.
A good example is Limbe City surrounded by hills and the Ocean City Radio 500 watts transmitter hardly gets to Buea, which is just 50 km. But Ocean City Radio in Douala with a similar 500 wattage transmitter is received in Buea, which is more than 100 km with relative ease.
Signals act like light with its electromagnetic waves. The signals from Limbe bounce back on reaching the hills. Signals have the same properties like light. The difference is that signals do not have visible spectrum when they leave a studio.
To conclude our conversation, I asked him for a last word and he explained he started his self-made transmitter experiment for setting up community radio as a means to build confidence and not to make money. Communication with the stations served is very good and regular by telephone. As he goes from station to Station, he also monitors the rate of performance of the radio staff. Franklin during his multiple trips, repairs not only transmitters, but also computers, audio studio mixers and everything electronic.