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Blind Radio Broadcaster in Sierra Leone Defies Authority With "voice of The Handicapped" Program

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from Disability World, A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views * Issue no. 9, July-August, 2001

No one trusted the news in Sierra Leone; the news was always prejudiced. But that all changed when James Cullen started his Voice of the Handicapped. His independent radio station became the most popular broadcast of the country... and his love poems are the main attraction

As soon as he sits in front of a microphone he really gets going. He has a soft, sensual voice; almost fluffy, like the teddy bears that are surrounding him in the studio. When his voice speaks of 'the tropical scent of your body' it is as if you can smell the adored one from the words of this blind poet. "Ah yes love," says James Cullen. "Love and more love... "

He knows he is good looking: "I'm 48 but I am a handsome one!" He cannot see his potential admirers. Once, when he was a young man, he found himself in the middle of a fight between two men. It was not his fight, but it cost him the sight in both eyes

But it did not cost him his voice. More then ever radio was his thing. Not only because he was blind, but also because radio is a very powerful or perhaps even the most powerful medium in Africa. If you do not know how to read a paper or have access to a television - like in his country, Sierra Leone - radio is the only powerful way to reach out

Getting a leg up from the BBC Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, became the seat of Cullen's 96.2FM Voice of the Handicapped. Some embassies and the odd support organization gave him some money. The mighty BBC was willing to supply him with brand new equipment. He only had to broadcast BBC-programs 12 hours a day. And Cullen's VoH became a smashing hit!

Until that moment the people of Sierra Leone had to make do with governmental information. No one trusted it, but it was the only information available. The arrival of the RUF rebels, coming from the east with all their diamonds, did not make the country any safer or the information more reliable. Only the VoH dared to give independent information

This independence made VoH into the most popular broadcast. Some say that 75% of all inhabitants of Free Town tune in every day. But with his broadcasts he also made enemies, mighty enemies. James Cullen and his disabled colleagues were regularly threatened

"No politician can pull my strings" says Cullen, who is by now the only disabled person left in the station. And with a burst of laughter he admits that he has created a lot of havoc!

In 1996 the minister of Information approached him with the request to report in a more friendly manner about the current administration. He was most willing to pay Cullen a hundred thousand Leones - which is a lot of money - if he would change his tune. Cullen made the minister sign a paper for handing over the money. This administered bribe became his opening for the next broadcast. And four hours later the security guards were knocking on his door. The days after were rather annoying, says Cullen. But the minister never stepped down

In the mean time the civil war - after 10 years - came officially to its end. With the presidential and parliament elections ahead this month Sierra Leone has to make a new start. "This is the new message," says Cullen "but the wounds made by the different fractions are not healed". He has no idea what the outcome of the coming elections will do with the 'losers'; how will they react, not only in that moment but in the long term?

Love is still a beloved subject Link, the popular talk show at VoH, happens to be a good platform for distressed listeners. Not only are they worried about the forthcoming elections, but they also express their need to overcome the war as soon as possible

And that is why the reading of Cullen's love poems is so popular. "It is very odd that, will all misery known to Sierra Leone, love still is such a beloved subject; also with the younger generation". On this continent, where youngsters are not members of the television generation, Cullen and his radio station are a kind of cult figure. He is their blind bard prophesizing a better future. And someone who provides them with their own youth program

But not only the youth of Sierra Leone are fans; all the others - even the President, some say, although he will never admit that - listen to Cullen and his Voice of the Handicapped. In a while Cullen hopes to start a new, a second radio station: the Voice of Freetown. He knows that this new station will lure a lot of listeners away from the VoH. "That's fine," he says. "I love competition. Especially with myself!"