At the launch of the second season of Nkhawa Njee in Malawi, hundreds of young people yell “Nkhawa Njee! Yonse Bo!” (Depression Free! Life is Cool!) in a boisterous call and response initiated by the program’s popular radio host The Diktator. The radio program, which reaches an estimated 500,000 youth in Malawi each week, is one of the country’s most popular radio shows.
The crowd, all dressed in Nkhawa Njee t-shirts, erupts as Diktator walks into the village of Mchinji to record a live broadcast of the radio program in their community. Throughout the day, young people compete in hip hop dance contests, competitions for the best song about mental health, and a football tournament between school mental health clubs, all with the aim of putting mental health on the agenda as a topic of discussion for teens.
Nkhawa Njee is a radio show produced as part of Farm Radio International’s “Integrated Approach to Addressing the Issue of Youth Depression in Malawi and Tanzania” project, funded by Grand Challenges Canada. Farm Radio International’s years of work has shown that interactive and participatory radio works to help small-scale farmers become more food secure by adopting new agricultural technologies and practices. But how does that apply to the field of mental health? By designing a radio show to discuss topics of interest to youth, the Nkhawa Njee and Positive Mood programs, which air in Malawi and Tanzania respectively, have become hugely popular.
The 30-minute weekly radio show — Nkhawa Njee is broadcast on MBC2 in Malawi and Positive Mood is broadcast on Radio 5 in Tanzania — is comprised of a serialized mini-drama about teenagers dealing with tough decisions, stresses and pressures they face in their lives. The series in each country follows a teenager’s descent into depression, their battle to overcome it amidst misdiagnoses and stigma, and ultimately their recovery. In addition to the mini-series, the weekly radio program features music and entertainment, audience quizzes and polls, and call-ins with mental health experts.
At the heart of the show are the issues that teenagers told us are important to them — exam stress, relationships, sexuality, teenage pregnancy, suicide, substance abuse, depression and anxiety. Underwriting each of these issues is information about how to maintain mental health, and what a young person can do if they think they may be suffering from a mental health disorder
After more than a year and half on the air in Malawi and six months in Tanzania, the teenagers have cast their votes: they love the radio show.