July 26, 2013

Roncalli graduate experiences Catholic radio—Uganda style

In this Jan. 20 photo, Alexandra “Alex” Servie is greeted by children at a Radio Pacis event in a village near Arua, Uganda. (Submitted photo)

In this Jan. 20 photo, Alexandra “Alex” Servie is greeted by children at a Radio Pacis event in a village near Arua, Uganda. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

Dancers going up the aisle during hymns sung to the beat of drums. Shrill cries ringing out in joy.

It was not what Alexandra “Alex” Servie was used to when attending Mass.

But it proved to be just another one of the striking differences between life in the United States and life in Uganda.

Servie spent five months in the African country working at a Catholic radio station in the northwestern city of Arua.

“It was very different in every way. There was no way to know what I was getting into,” says the 2012 Roncalli High School graduate and member of St. Jude Parish in Indianapolis.

From experiencing the role of Catholic radio in a region with few other forms of communication, to learning of mob justice and carnivorous ants, Servie reflects on her unique experience.

Gaining global experience

Not sure what she wanted to major in after graduating from high school, Servie took a year off before enrolling in college to travel and gain experience in different areas of interest.

Last fall, she spent two months in Uruguay taking Spanish and art classes while interning for a fashion designer and an event planner.

That experience was followed by two months in Argentina volunteering for a non-governmental organization that focused on sustainable development.

Servie spent early January through early May working at a Catholic radio station in Uganda. That opportunity came through Servie’s aunt, Sherry Meyer.

Meyer is a volunteer missionary from the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. She has been working for the Diocese of Arua in Uganda for 22 years.

She and a Comboni priest started the station in October of 2004, operating on three frequencies to target different regions and languages.

‘Not entertainment radio’

“It’s called Radio Pacis [Radio Peace],” Meyer explains. “Our goal is to announce the Good News of Jesus but in a holistic way. So some programs are developmental for health issues, educational issues, family relations, working for unity, healing of divisions. We start every morning with the rosary. I run a call-in program for people to call in with questions. We do special programming for all major feasts, Christmas and Holy Week.

“We are not entertainment radio. We provide information. News is a huge part of what we do. We broadcast news bulletins in local languages. We’re considered the news leader in this area. There are no newspapers, but most don’t read anyway,” Meyer says. “Nobody has TV or internet. Before [the station started], the only news they got was as far as they could walk.”

Servie worked in the newsroom as a journalist. She conducted interviews, wrote stories and voiced them on the radio.

“I focused on more international issues and then interviewed local people on the topic,” says Servie. “There’s a lot of education that goes on with radio. The newsroom would play things from CNN, Al Jazeera [international Arabic news service] and the BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] when the stories were relevant to Uganda. We played the new pope’s speech and news from Vatican Radio.”

Mob justice

Sometimes the station even played the role of peace maker.

“There’s not much of a legal system here,” Servie notes. “They practice mob justice. If someone commits a crime, then someone gets revenge on them or their village.”

One such instance that involved the radio station occurred while Servie was in Uganda. Although she did not witness the event personally, her aunt did.

“We went out to record a rural debate,” Meyer relays. “When we got to the village, there was an accusation that someone had hit someone with a motorcycle or bike or something. Revenge was happening.

“So when we got there, the officials asked that we not do the rural debate. But we set up our equipment, got the facts out that the person was not dead and got the two sides to talk, and we prevented further violence.”

Of black magic and more

Mob justice exists despite a high number of churches and faiths. Servie noted that along with Catholics, there is a high number of Protestants, Anglicans and members of the Church of Uganda.

“To them, everyone has to have some kind of religion. I have a friend in the Peace Corps in Uganda who is an atheist, and they just couldn’t understand the concept of not believing in some religion.

“One thing that really surprised me was the belief in black magic,” Servie continues. “All people, even Christians, believe in it. They don’t use science to explain things. Like when someone dies, they hold another person responsible.”

Other differences Servie noted involved the quality of life in Uganda, a third world country.

“Most people live in grass huts as subsistence farmers with no electricity or plumbing. It’s a long walk to town. Those who had a little more money had a brick house and tin roof, but still no electricity or plumbing. Businesses usually had electricity, but it was unreliable. At the station we had solar power and generators. We had to because the radio station goes 24 hours.

“If I didn’t want to walk, I took a motorcycle taxi,” says Servie. “It wasn’t the safest form of transportation, but it was often the only form if you didn’t want to walk.

“I wouldn’t go out alone at night. At night, there was the danger of wild life, snakes and carnivorous ants. They travel in a line. You have to have a flashlight because if you step in their path they swarm you and bite. I hear it’s pretty painful.”

‘Totally worth it’

Despite the dangers, Servie grew from the experience. Her aunt attests to the growth.

“Alex told me, ‘I can’t believe in America that we think if everyone hands out mosquito nets [in Africa], we’ll end malaria.’ She understood the complications of the matter. They use mosquito nets for other things because they think other things are more important, or they sell them for money. So she saw complications—that we can’t just come in and assume the way we do it is the way it will work. You can’t just cut and paste our solutions. In a short five months, some of her ideas changed.”

Servie is grateful for the experience.

“I learned a lot of life lessons. I learned to be culturally sensitive. I got an idea of what I want to study.

“The experience was totally worth it.” †

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