Training shares ways for UM communicators to tell Africa's faith stories

8/1/2006

United Methodist News Service

MUTARE, Zimbabwe — For Marie Manisha, whose homeland of Burundi is still recovering from war, good communications is essential to life itself.

 

“Without communication, there is no life,” she said, speaking in French.

She and 27 other United Methodist communicators received intensive training in photography, videography, Web page design, news writing and computer software programs during a June 14-30 conference held at Africa University.

 

The conference was organized as part of the Central Conference Communications Initiative, which was approved by the 2004 General Conference to nurture and strengthen church communications in Africa, Asia and Europe. United Methodist Communications staff surveyed the African bishops in 2004 and met with African communicators in 2005 at the university to identify needs. Training and equipment topped the list.

 

With her newly learned computer, photography and video skills, Manisha can share information about her church and country. She hopes those skills will change lives. “Without communication, we are lost in this world,” she said.

 

The event brought together, for the first time, church communicators from 13 African countries for training and relationship building at the United Methodist school near Mutare.

 

“We see this program as a means of strengthening our communications network,” said Konah Parker, the communicator for the denomination’s Liberia Annual Conference and president of the United Methodist Association of Communicators-Africa Region.

 

He enjoyed learning PowerPoint, Excel and Web design and, like other participants, took to photography with enthusiasm, schooled by workshop instructors on the use of new digital cameras provided by United Methodist Communications.

 

“From just being a camera holder walking around, I am going back to Liberia as a professional photographer,” he said.

 

Phileas Jusu, a journalist and church communicator, from Freetown, Sierra Leone, wants to project an image of the church and its work there that people aren’t aware of. “For me, this training program particularly has not only improved my skills, it has opened new doors for me because with the new skills and equipment, I will now actualize my dreams,” he said.

 

Like Manisha, many participants didn’t know how to operate a computer mouse at the beginning of the conference, but two and a half weeks later, they were designing Web pages and online newsletters.

 

Classes were led by 15 instructors from the United States – including United Methodist Communications – England, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique.

 

Louis Loma Otshudi, director of communications for the Central Congo Area, cited his new knowledge of software, photography and videography. Speaking in French, he said: “After this training, I am a changed person.”

 

The big picture

For some areas, particularly parts of Africa, basic communications infrastructure is minimal or nonexistent. The communicators at the training event described a chronic lack of Internet connectivity or even accessible roads. In areas where the infrastructure is working, limited financial resources have made church communications difficult.

 

Some parts of Africa, such as Burundi, are still recovering from war. “Before the war, communication was good,” Manisha said. “During the war, it was a disaster. There was an office but not equipment.”

 

The same was true in Rwanda, according to Sinanga Juvenal, coordinator of United Methodist schools in Rwanda and president of the lay leaders there. “It is only now that it has come out from the war. Everything was looted.”

 

The equipment he is receiving from United Methodist Communications “will promote communications in Rwanda, in our conference and beyond our conference,” he said, noting that it will be easier to share ideas and to produce newsletters and journals.

 

United Methodist Communications is working with bishops’ offices throughout Africa to set up communications centers. Through partnerships with U.S. annual conferences including the Mississippi Conference, centers have been fully funded for Zimbabwe, South Africa, North Katanga (in part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Central Congo and Côte d’Ivoire. The Mississippi Conference is funding the center in Zimbabwe.

 

A fully funded center would include a computer and video and photography equipment, as well as a monthly salary of $500 to $600 for a communicator.

Many of the communicators hold down other jobs while serving the church. Parker, for example, works as a commercial driver, using his own car, in Monrovia.

 

Jusu said he is leaving a secure job as the deputy managing editor of a newspaper in Freetown so that he can be more effective in serving the church as a communicator. And Teddy Nabirye is a graduate teacher at a secondary school in Nsambya, Uganda.

 

The training conference helped some participants realize being a church communicator can be a full-time job.

 

The Rev. Bruno Bobiotche of Côte d’Ivoire leads nine congregations and is in charge of Protestant broadcasting on the state-owned radio station. He said he planned to talk with his bishop about becoming a full-time communicator.

 

If Jesus were doing ministry today, he’d be using a laptop and a cell phone, said Simon Gunuza of South Africa. Lifting his new camera, he added: “This is a blessing from him.”

 

Building a network

Along with acquiring skills, the communicators at the Mutare event emphasized the importance of the new relationships they had built with one another.

 

“Relationships are very important,” said the Rev. Betty Kazadi Musau, assistant director of communications for North Katanga. “… We have to invest in those relationships. It’s a gift from God.”

 

“We have got now a lot of friends,” Otshudi added. “There is a unity in the church as we have seen each other face to face.”

 

Taylor Walters, an Indiana United Methodist who worked last year in the North Katanga Area, has developed an online discussion board that the group can use to stay in touch, and it includes a translation program for English, French and Portuguese.

 

As the conference drew to an end, the communicators presented a variety of projects showcasing what they had learned – videos, PowerPoint presentations, newsletters, stories, photos. The material was drawn from field trips the group took in the area.

 

Dauda Goding of Nigeria shared a radio script he had written based on interviews with an AIDS expert and two women living with AIDS.

 

Part of the conference had focused on the importance of empathy in relating to people with AIDS – an eye-opening lesson for some of the communicators, who said their views were changed.

 

“I am trying to show that living with AIDS is not the end of life,” Goding explained to the group.

 

Participants said they plan on developing stories on such topics as prison ministries, feeding programs, youth activities and water projects.