Pan Africa Radio Show hosts Dr. Alhaji N’jai and Dr. Linda Vakunta

There is really nothing like the Pan Africa Radio Show in Wisconsin, maybe anywhere. The weekly radio show on WORT-FM features the vast and diverse music, cultures, traditions, stories, and history of Africa and its diaspora every Saturday from 2-4 p.m.

The producers and hosts of the show are Dr. Alhaji N’jai, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Dr. Linda Vakunta, who finished up her Ph.D. work for the Nelson Institutes at UW-Madison last December. The two have tremendous chemistry on the air whether they are tackling very serious social issues or just having some fun. They are very well-prepared and well-informed and always seem like they are having a great time. Both Vakunta and N’jai have been known to travel quite a bit around the world, and when they do, the Pan Africa Radio Show truly becomes a global endeavor.

“It’s cool to do live interviews from Africa. You get to talk about what’s happening on the ground and sometimes you find out about music you would have never heard before,” Vakunta tells Madison365 in an interview from Sierra Leone through the Facebook Messenger app. “It’s not all music that gets on the world music platform. There is some really great stuff on the ground that you can only get when you are there. That’s what I love about traveling is that you get to hear so many things you wouldn’t normally hear. It wouldn’t be on the Internet, it wouldn’t be on the radio … and you bring that all to the listeners.

Linda Vakunta looks through WORT's extensive collection of records from around the world.
Linda Vakunta looks through WORT’s extensive collection of records from around the world.

The duo brings a knowledge base about African music that is quite incredible, but the show is about much more than just music. “The Pan Africa Radio Show is a combination of music, culture, history and current issues. We tap into a lot of social justice issues. It’s such a diverse mixture of things that we bring to the show,” N’jai says. “We have professors who travel to Europe and still tune in our show online – they don’t want to miss it.”

But how do you pack all of Africa – a continent with immense diversity, culture, and history — into just two hours? “That’s the challenge! That’s our biggest challenge. The music from Africa is so huge … and we don’t even scratch the surface,” N’jai says. “The two hours go by fast. I always call it the fastest two hours of my life – Saturdays with the Pan Africa Show.”

“Over the years, we’ve figured it out that it’s best to do the show by themes,” adds Vakunta. “We’ve done so many different themes where we take one country each week and go through the eras and the genres of each country. There are times when we do ‘acoustic Africa’ and we only do acoustic music from different countries. Then there are other days when we do drums. There are days when we focus on women … and other days when we focus on human rights and other social issues. Doing it by themes makes it easier for us to explore the huge diversity of Africa.

“And, still, I think we only bring the tip of the iceberg to our listeners,” she adds. “The goal is to get them interested in something new and to go out and support the artist by buying their music and to also do some research themselves to find out more about the artists and the genres.”

Alhaji N’jai at WORT studios in downtown Madison
Alhaji N’jai at WORT studios in downtown Madison

Too much potential content is a good problem to have for a radio show. And it’s not just Africa — the Pan Africa Show looks at the whole African diaspora. “We’re also looking at the Caribbean. We’re looking at the U.S. – jazz, blues,” N’jai says. “We are connected in all of these different networks. There’s just so much out there. It’s been very educational for me.”

N’jai came to the United States from Sierra Leone during the country’s civil war that lasted from 1991 to 2002 and resulted in more than 70,000 casualties and 2.6 million displaced people. The war was characterized by widespread atrocities, including the abduction of children and systematic rape. N’jai has built a successful career and life here in the United States, but that doesn’t mean that he has forgotten where he came from. In fact, N’jai founded the non-profit organization Project 1808 in March of 2008 that is dedicated to promoting quality education, sustainable livelihood, and technical capacity in Sierra Leone through local partnerships. Much more than a non-profit, Project 1808 has been his life passion.

“I’m always looking back. That’s an important part. How do I continue to never forget that portion of my life? That’s why I started Project 1808 and that’s why we continue to invest much more,” he says. “I strongly believe that there are a lot of youths in that community that need attention and to have people like us to come and give back and use some of the things we’ve learned here [in the U.S.] to make our own little difference in that community.”

Project 1808 promotes sustainable community development and works to empower youths and adults in N’jai’s hometown community of Kabala, Koinadugu District, Sierra Leone.

Project 1808  is dedicated to promoting quality education, sustainable livelihood, and technical capacity in Sierra Leone. (Photo by Casey Kalman)
Project 1808 is dedicated to promoting quality education, sustainable livelihood, and technical capacity in Sierra Leone.
(Photo by Casey Kalman)

“We want to give them the tools that will enable people in that society to move towards a more sustainable community development,” N’jai says. “I came to the United States during the war in Sierra Leone and one of the things that I realized was that people in my community were stuck. The youths, because of the war, lacked certain skills that would enable them to be more productive citizens in the community.”

While currently focusing on the Kabala area of Koinadugu District, Project 1808 has the goal of expanding to other parts of Sierra Leone and West Africa. N’jai’s goal was to come up with an idea and an organization to, as he says, “un-stuck people.” “We wanted to really focus on education and providing educational support for young people in the community,” N’jai says. “We also wanted to engage the youths with the community, so we are looking at education plus community. So they are involved in service, helping the community, and working on meaningful projects.”

Njai’s doctoral and post-doctoral research work focused on toxicology, genomics, immunology, stem cell biology, and systems biology, where he has published impact journals. He fully understands the opportunity that education gave him in life and he wants the young people of his hometown to know that there are opportunities out there for them.

Students from Project 1808 in Sierra Leone (Photo by Casey Kalman)
Students from Project 1808 in Sierra Leone
(Photo by Casey Kalman)

“Along with education and community, we want them to have opportunity so that they can become very successful in careers and in life,” N’jai adds. “Since 2012, we’ve developed programs in nutrition, health and in STEM and in other areas.”

Money is raised through fundraisers and from people in the Madison community and well beyond who have been generous with the programs of Project 1808, which gets its name from the date that the British ended the African slave trade.

“We’ve also been very conscious of what we can achieve by stretching the limits of very small funding,” N’jai says. “And the biggest part, of course, is our volunteers who have helped us so much. We have people who have paid for their own trips to Sierra Leone out of their own pockets to help and take part in lending a hand and doing these activities.”

Linda Vakunta with a Project 1808 student in Kabala, Koinadugu District of Sierra Leone
Linda Vakunta with a Project 1808 student in Kabala, Koinadugu District of Sierra Leone

Project 1808 started with 56 students in 2011 and presently they have a little over 400 students in Kabala, Sierra Leone. Vakunta, a researcher/country coordinator for Project 1808, has been in Sierra Leone since April coordinating Project 1808 activities.

“As Project 1808 has grown bigger, there has been so much more demand, so she’s in the country,” N’Jai says. “At the same time, she’s also coordinating our Ebola Control Research Program at [University of Sierra Leone].

A native of Cameroon, Vakunta has traveled to Sierra Leone numerous times to facilitate and implement Project 1808 programs. She tells Madison365 that she just got done distributing 400 books to students. “We are going to also be providing scholarships for 217 of those students and also paying fees for them,” she says. “Also, I’m a post-doctoral researcher for the Ebola study and just this past September, the U.S. embassy granted us an award for a small grant to begin a vocational skill-building program for Ebola survivors. I’m going to be starting that program soon.”
Back in Madison, N’jai has been flying solo at WORT studios with the Pan Africa Radio Show while Vakunta has been in Africa, but that doesn’t mean that she still isn’t playing a big part in producing and contributing to the show. Vakunta is still relaying her perspectives and ideas and picking out songs while interviewing people and finding excellent local music from halfway around the world. “Sometimes Linda will go to Nigeria or Kenya or some other place and it gives a whole new meaning to the show,” N’jai says. “It’s really fantastic because she is getting a lot of the local perspective of things that are happening in so many different areas and the technology connects us.”

Vakunta’s international community work has also taken her to Ghana as a business environment intern for USAID’s West Africa Trade Hub where she supported research work on the promotion of sustainable development through free movement of transport, goods, and persons.

N’jai is quite the world traveler himself – having been to France, Germany, The Netherlands and traveling within the United States quite a bit — so when he travels he does the same thing — reports back to the show and gets local perspectives.

“The show has grown tremendously because of technology now. Thanks to Facebook and all of this media,” N’jai says. “Being online, people all across the continent can listen to this show from Zambia to South Africa. People are listening and following and tweeting back and sending their music. We are getting connected to all of these great artists. A lot of the newer and younger artists are highly connected online so it’s easier to tap into those networks, too.

Linda Vakunta live on air on the Pan Africa Radio Show
Linda Vakunta live on air on the Pan Africa Radio Show

“Technology is allowing a small show out of Madison to have a huge impact. We get a lot of demands. Linda and I try to be very intentional about researching the music and digging up really relevant music and then putting relevant information behind it,” he adds. “So, even within the continent, they don’t get that kind of show and the variety of music we play.”

Vakunta says that the listeners of the Pan Africa Radio Show are what really warm her heart and keep her inspired.

“The type of listeners in the community we have here in Madison are just amazing,” says Vakunta. “You’ll be doing the show and this person will call you and say, ‘Oh, you played that song. I remember it from my visit to so-and-so!’ That’s part of the enrichment between us and the listeners. I’ve done shows in other cities, but I feel like in Madison they really appreciate it more.

“I love being able to connect with so many people who have been to the many different parts of Africa. Whenever we do the show, we get calls from Peace Corps volunteers or from Africans who haven’t heard some of the songs,” she adds. “What we do is we really try to play contemporary songs but also songs that are from different eras. I remember we played this song from Kenyan and a lady called in and said, ‘Wow! I haven’t heard this song in over 40 years!’ Several times I’ve had people call me and say, “Your show took my mind off a pain that I was experiencing.’ So I know the show can be very therapeutic for people … and I love that.”