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The radio is on full blast as we drive down the winding roads of north-eastern Bangladesh. News, music, discussions. As we come closer to Moulvibazar city, the young people we are travelling with turn up the volume even more. The dialect changes. Everything is suddenly in their local tongue – Sylheti.
The Sylheti language, spoken by those in the district of Sylhet, was originally written in the script of Sylheti Nagari, and dates back to the 13th century. But like most dialects in the world, it is not spoken widely anymore – especially by young people.
The voice on the radio belongs to an eloquent young woman.
Ekhon hunairam Rabindra sangeet, Majhe Majhe (We will now play a Rabindranath Tagore song called Majhe Majhe)
Amra abar airam, ouno sms koroin 01780201313, Radio Pollikontho 99.2 (We’ll be right back, SMS here at 01780201313, Radio Pollikontho 99.2)
Radio Pollikontho is BRAC’s community radio, and it is run by millennials who present, 95% of the time, in Sylheti. The dialect is not wholly different from Bengali, but like all native tongues, it has richness of its own – and to Sylhetis,
it legitimises, promotes and preserves the sound of home.
Radio Pollikontho is preserving a language, and it is bringing the Sylheti community together in the process.
The station is abuzz with excited voices and ideas. An enthusiastic group of 30 young women and men write scripts, record interviews, edit clips, produce and present on air for 12 hours daily.
A voice for young people, by young people.
The topics of discussion are numerous – health and hygiene tips from doctors, seasonal farming advice, rights and laws, and local good news stories.
Listeners choose the topics they want the presenters to talk about, raise questions, give opinions and demand solutions. They call in, comment through social media and listener groups and send comments and questions via text messages.
The presenters, most of whom are college and university students, interview people from across the spectrum – government agriculture officials for agriculture tips, doctors for health conditions, and legal services in the region.
In the show Krishi Kotha (agriculture matters), presenters hold Q&A sessions with agriculture specialists and farmers. In Shushasthwa (good health), health experts answer listeners’ questions. The callers are of all ages, with some programmes having specific slots for people to call in and share stories of old about the area.
A 65-year-old woman was once on the show to share memories of her wedding– she was married off even though she did not say kabul (I accept), and how she had suffered for it. She warned listeners of the ills of child marriage, and expressed her relief in being able to share her experience, and the possibility of it helping others.
Presenter Rozina Begum received a call during her programme Ain o Jibon (law in our lives) while she was discussing the topic of eve teasing. The listener told Rozina that she had been victim to it several times and felt a deep shame.
She gathered up the courage to confront the man after listening to Rozina speak about it. She told him off, informing him that it was sexual harassment, and warning him that it was wrong. He soon stopped bothering her. The listener had also stepped up when she saw other men harassing young women.
Sumon, a barber and poet, always has his radio tuned to 99.2 in his barbershop in the bustling bazar beside the Manu river.
Sumon, along with other members of listeners’ clubs, sit together every month to discuss how to make programmes more effective, and their communities safer. Sumon has, on several occasions, protested against and scolded men for harassing women on his street. Members of the listeners’ clubs have also stood together to protest against the misdeeds of a local physician.
This little community radio station is not only communicating with its local community – it is connecting globally
Sutapa Rani Paul, is currently in Nepal as part of an exchange programme, while a member of the Nepalese community radio station, Radio Rudraksha, is currently working at Pollikontho.
Kamruzzaman Mithu, another presenter, visited America in 2017 to attend a workshop on radio broadcasting. He brought back home a wealth of knowledge and new ideas. He started broadcasting a programme in English, in collaboration with the American Centre, called ‘Ao English Hiki’ (Let’s learn English).
One of his proudest moments as part of Pollikontho was when he held a fundraising campaign for a local woman who had suffered terrible burns. The campaign managed to raise over BDT 70,000 (USD 840) for her medical treatment.
Radio Pollikontho is the first community radio in Bangladesh to win national and international awards – 17 in the last seven years. The team has bagged one international and three national awards in 2017 alone.
Over 70% of the world’s population has access to the radio, making it one of the easiest and reliable channels for communicating news, information and entertainment.
Radio Pollikontho takes pride in its ability to give its community a voice – a voice towards progress, led by charismatic and inspirational young members of the community. With the sound of home, but also of change, always playing – in barber shops, in markets, at home, and among family – Sylheti is likely not to disappear anytime quickly, and is rather set to become even more vibrant.
Zaian F Chowdhury is a senior writer at BRAC Communications, and Salina Shahnaz Shilpi is a manager for communications at BRAC’s community empowerment programme.