A trusted voice

South Sudanese religious leaders are helping children fighting COVID-19

By Syed Zia Haider Rizvi & Anne Kennedy
A girl looking into the camera
10 August 2020

In Yei there are few ways to stay informed, even less so for an 11-year-old girl. And in 2020, who can she believe? Yet Jacklin Be John knew instantly that she could trust the voice that was telling her that COVID-19 was real, and how to prevent it.

It was a voice she knew well. Anyone in Yei would. It was Fr Anthony Taban, one of the most popular preachers in her part of South Sudan. Not only that but the voice was speaking on the main radio channel listened to by her parents for religious instruction, called ‘Easter’. When he told her to adhere to the COVID-19 guidelines she knew it must be important. As a result, she listened to all the guidelines she heard and tries to follow them.

The same radio channel that told her about COVID-19, also made her an active part in its prevention. She takes seriously the encouragement to spread prevention techniques to whoever she can, so seriously that she has gained the nickname 'child-teacher' from her friends.

In a country with very little access to internet, the radio is a vital link to ensure information quickly reaches all parts of the country. Since the schools closed Jacklin has used the radio to follow her lessons and keep up with her education.

She is not alone in having a stalled life. In her area offices are closed, trade is slowing down, schools closed, religious congregations are not taking place and public transport is scrutinized, all to slow or stop the transmission of the highly contagious disease as much as possible.

A girl looking at her radio

UNICEF has activated its country-wide network of community-based social mobilisers to make sure vital messages reach the people of every part of South Sudan. One of the ways they make sure the messages on prevention are known and listened to is to use people who are already trusted.

These mobilizers are also made responsible for reaching out to influencers who can help extend their support to the program. Influencers such as community and religious leaders and, teachers. Their messages about washing hands, staying apart from friends and monitoring your health, are then re-enforced with megaphone announcements.

With its partners UNICEF makes sure that religious and community leaders are directly informed of all the issues surrounding COVID-19. How it can be prevented, how to gain truthful information, how to tackle false rumors. They do what they are most able to do: use their communication networks to make sure their communities comprehend the disease and understand how to prevent it spreading.

In Yei one of the popular radio stations is a religious one, called “Easter”. Easter regularly invites religious and community leaders, as well as social mobilisers and UNICEF experts for interviews to strengthen awareness about COVID-19. The radio hosts talk shows and airs COVID-19 jingles.

The radio in Jacklin's lap is barely bigger than her cupped hands. Yet it has already become her school, her church, her newspaper and her trusted adviser. Hopefully her efforts to tell others how to halt COVID-19 will mean that soon her world will once again expand, safely, past her radio and home. 

 The World Bank has partnered with UNICEF South Sudan for the COVID-19 response. In addition, UNICEF South Sudan has received financial support from DFID, USAID and Japan, as well as Denmark and the National Committees for UNICEF