Many people join the BBC World Service in the hope that they can contribute something to the public service ideals of the corporation. But few do it as successfully as Laurent Ndayuhurume, who for 11 years was Head of the BBC Great Lakes Service, set up originally to help reunite families in the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide. The programme is currently listened to by two and a half million people every week in the Great Lakes region of central Africa.
Ndayuhurume was born in a remote village in the Burundian mountains, surrounded by banana plantations. He was one of the few who managed to go to school and as he was a radio fanatic wrote to the Director of Radio Burundi in his final year saying "I would like to read the news on your station". He was told that if he got on well with his studies, he would be sent a message over the airwaves to come and take a test. He joined the radio station, later becoming one of the best-known presenters in Burundi. His director nominated him for a scholarship to study in Strasbourg, which was the beginning of his involvement with the Western media. He joined the BBC French Service, at Bush House in London, in 1989.
The BBC had never broadcast in Kinyarwanda and Kirundi, the main languages of the Great Lakes region. But when the genocide took place in Rwanda in 1994, the World Service was approached by a number of NGOs who asked whether the BBC could not provide a service for the millions of refugees and displaced people who had no reliable information about their relatives or what was happening at home. The power of radio had of course been proven beyond all doubt by Radio Mille Collines, which exhorted people to go out and kill.
The World Service had no funding for the project but the Head of the Swahili Service at the time, Neville Harms, got together a small team of producers from the French and Swahili services who spoke Kinyarwanda or Kirundi and persuaded NGOs to fund the project on a limited basis. Ndayuhurume was a driving force in the team, together with Karenga Ramadhani, now Information Minister in Burundi, and Ally Yusuf Mugenzi, who succeeded Ndayuhurume as head of the Great Lakes Service last summer. They worked closely with the International Committee for the Red Cross to provide detailed information about missing people.
The programme was only 15 minutes long but research carried out by Foundation Hirondelle in 1995 in refugee camps in Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo found that the BBC attracted the largest audience compared with other international radio stations. The Department for International Development then took over funding for the programme and it expanded to include news and current affairs and features on health and development.
Ndayuhurume's sure journalistic instincts and commitment to covering all sides of the story as well as his excellent contacts and knowledge of central Africa were the foundation of the programme's success. It was never an easy job as the terrible history and rivalries of the region meant that not everyone was ready to hear balance or the other side of an argument. In a very moving talk for Radio 4 in 2002 he explained how his own family found his failure to condemn their enemies baffling. He said that he knew that most of his listeners could not understand how he could work at the BBC with a mixed team of Burundians and Rwandese, Hutus and Tutsis.
He was delighted when the decision was taken to make the Great Lakes Service a substantive part of the World Service in 2004, funded by grant-in-aid from the Foreign Office.
Ndayuhurume became ill and retired from the BBC last summer. He returned to Burundi, where he spent the last few months of his life. His colleagues in the Burundian media are setting up a Laurent Ndayuhurume Prize for young journalists in his memory.
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