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The “Saucepan Special” and a radio revolution in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) continued.

10 April 2019

Part 2

Two users’ testimonies give a feel for the early days of the Saucepan Special in Northern Rhodesia. Collected and published by the Information Department, these sources capture utopian thinking about radio, voices infused with techno-optimism and techno-irritation.

The first testimony is written by the Court Clerk on behalf of the Senior Chief of the Lunda tribe, based in North Western province on the border with Angola and the Congo, right in the centre of Central Africa, and in the 19th century one of the last areas to open up to the influence of Christian missions, western merchants and tax collectors, agents of change in the colonial period.

Chief Shinde’s account, written on behalf of all the people of Balovale, is littered with spelling and grammatical errors, which were left in the published version to give it, one must assume, authenticity. The Information Department portrayed the chief as a traditional tribal leader who wore a wristband of dried human organs cut from slaves by his ancestor, and who ruled over a ‘most primitive’ district, ‘notorious for its witch doctors and poisoners’.

His wristband was an heirloom handed down to become a permanent part of his regalia, a link to the tribal past, a reminder that his family were powerful protectors. It was probably used by the Information Department to convey how radio had reached all peoples.

The Chief was extraordinarily grateful to the government for providing cheap radio services and for sponsoring radio programmes. He saw radio as progressive, a way of uniting and improving his people. He noted that before these cheaper sets began to sell in the Balovale District there were only a few sets owned by the Boma, Mission Stations and other Europeans.

He observed that now ‘Africans of all classes, who are within reach of Wireless Radios, can listen to the news’. He reported on how his people ‘rejoiced when a number of wireless radios arrived at Mr B. P. Rudge’s Store in January, 1950’. He noted how he managed to buy one and take it back to his capital, Mukandakunda, where his people gathered around nightly to listen in.

He states:

‘Many people, men, women and children, came in larger numbers, as if they were entering a Church, all desirous to hear the news. One interesting thing is that when they sit down listening to the news, and when they hear the sounds in the radio, you can see them wagging their heads. Then they say [sic]: ‘These Europeans are wonderful people and the wisdom which God gave them is incomparable’.

His tone is deferential. Is he telling the Information Department what he thinks it wants to hear—that radio is underpinning colonial and tribal rule—or are these genuine sentiments, reflecting that radio was the wonder of the age and that his peoples saw it a symbol of material progress?

Source: British Empire Collection of Photographs, Zambia, TNA, INF10/380

At this point his testimony changes in tone to highlight his frustration with radio. He asks his people ‘whether they do understand what is being said’. They reply to him:

 ‘We only hear the sounds but the actual meaning of what they say, we do not understand. For we do not know any of these languages, viz, Lozi, Nyanja, Tonga, and many other languages whose records are plaid [sic] on the wireless when broadcasting. In the same way, when people sing, we only hear sounds and not the actual meaning of the song they sing’.

Northern Rhodesia was a place of incredible linguistic diversity. The Chief observed that his people were being ‘deprived of the valuable intertainment [sic] which others are enjoying’. From the perspective of the Chief and the Information Department, radio was not having its desired effect: to civilise. It was merely stimulating the emotions—the wagging of the head to new sounds. This was reflected in listener research, which indicates that music programming was staple of the schedule, as shown below.

Source: The National Archives, Kew. CO875/66/4

The Chief ended his testimony with a demand: for the government to pay for a translator, to ensure that these messages had a truly transformative effect. The testimony mutated into a petition, which might explain its deferential tone.

The Chief continued:

‘For it is a great pity that these people miss valuable lessons which others learn from the wireless. Generally speaking, there are many things which people can learn from the wireless, such as care of children, education of girls, sanitation, housewifery, improved methods of agriculture and buildings and many other things. Particularly do the people in this District desire to hear more about care of dams and how water can be usefully reserved during the whole year’.

Chief Shinde was a man living between times: he mixed modern ways (the radio) and old ones (adornments of dried human organs). He wanted to ensure that his people were receiving messages direct from the colonial government in Lusaka, and from abroad. Radio offered him an opportunity to increase his power, by providing his people with access to the technological wonder of the age.

The second narrative is also from a member of the ruling classes, a colonial official, the Provincial Education Officer in the Barotseland Protectorate, in southwest Northern Rhodesia, bordering Angola, and Bechuanaland, and home for the Lozi, Nkoya, Simaa, Totela and Kwangwa tribal peoples, and depicted in the photograph below of a Royal Barge.



On a village-to-village tour of a vast territory, showcasing his new Saucepan Special set, he recorded:

‘The first evening I visited the Mulena Mukwae [The Barotse Princess ruling over the Nabola area] at Mafulo. I tried to get to ..Lusaka but could not for some time. I was getting rather desperate—after my enthusiastic description of the set’s capabilities—when it came through clear and strong. I had no watch and had been trying for half an hour before you started broadcasting! The Mulena Mukwae herself later turned on the set and tuned it perfectly. I had told the people that I would be back at my camp at 6pm and arriving late expected a crowd but found no one. They had taken 6pm as meaning sunset and arrived just as you finished your broadcast. However, they were quite content to listen to Lourenco Marques (some were from Angola) and the BBC. By about 8pm over a hundred people were present with many children who should have been in bed—in the foreground: the Silalo Induma sitting on a chair amongst them: the women and the men behind in a semi-circle. I shall never forget the look of rapture on a blind man’s face as he listened to the programmes—he came every time I had it on there.

On Thursday evening, I had a large crowd again.  When the set was turned on there were looks of incredulity and joy when they heard their own language and the announcer’s greetings were quickly answered. One child of about four sat smiling for about 2 hours, its face literally smothered in flies. The women joined in songs and thoroughly enjoyed themselves. It was obvious that broadcasts of local songs were most popular, records were appreciated but no enthusiasm was shown for them. Talks were listened to attentively. It was a great thing for these people, many of whom could not read’.

This account reveals the wonder of radio. The two dominant images are the blind man’s response, and the attentiveness of the child, distracted from the plague of flies. Fraenkel depicted a similar communal listening experience in his 1959 article, but this photograph shows men gathered around a set.

It is difficult for us in the twenty-first century to appreciate the impact of this electronic novelty. Even in 1950s Britain radio had become an everyday technology; for some mere background noise to accompany work.

Source: Peter J. Fraenkel, ‘Central Africa’s ‘saucepan special’, The UNESCO Courier, XII, 9, 1959, page 27.]

Attentive listening is all the more remarkable in hindsight when we come to realize that much of the programming was state propaganda: public information announcements, messages about:

Hard work.
Fixed Cultivation with Improved Methods.
Increased Cattle Production with Improved Quality.
Early Burning.
Education of Girls.
Construction of Small Dams and Weirs.
The Development of African Broadcasting . . .

Chief Shinde saw the value of these messages. So did ordinary listeners. The Information Department in Northern Rhodesia pioneered listener research, detailed in the image below. This document shows that type 7, programmes related to the five-year plan, received comparatively few negative comments and that most respondents were appreciative of news programmes, including world news, detailed at 5 and 15 below.

Source: The National Archives, CO875/66/4

The most divisive programmes were music shows. ‘Cowboys songs’ received the most negative comments. These songs, it must be assumed, were America folk records. Hearing other tribal songs also polarised audiences. Listening to familiar tribal songs on a new medium was appreciated. With respect to music programming, listeners preferred local over regional or international music.

In early 1950s Central African Broadcasting based at Lusaka was not trying to communicate to an existing community but to imagine a new one, to create a sense of belonging to British Central Africa. It was broadcasting to African peoples in Northern Rhodesia, a vast territory populated by two million, and to Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. How could one radio station, Central African Broadcasting, cater to the needs of numerous communities with different cultural preferences?

As the above documents show, some of the most popular shows were broadcasts of ‘local songs’: the rhythms that moved people. Central African Broadcasting was a pioneer in this respect, touring the tribal lands and recording folk songs, showcasing the oral tradition of a vast region. This was a commendable musicological endeavor but it did not produce programmes that were universally popular. Central African Broadcasting also had to resort to playing imported recorded music, schedule filler.


Even using this programming device, Central African Broadcasting could only broadcast for a few hours each night. International broadcasters filled gaps in the schedule. Stations across the Central, East, South and West Africa were listed on the pre-set dial for the Saucepan Special.

In conclusion, seen through the eyes photographers, tribal chiefs, colonial bureaucrats and programmers the radio revolution was characterized by a sense of techno-utopianism. Textual and visual sources reveal that once ‘poor’ Africans got access to a radio receiving set they listened attentively. The Saucepan Special was central to this radio revolution, a cheap radio receiving set made for Africans.

Testimonies express a sense of wonder at the potential of radio. They are also infused by techno-irritation. There was concern about background noise and fragile parts. Listeners were baffled at what messages from across the wireless world meant. And they were disgruntled at having to listen to foreign folk music, a staple of the schedule. 

Further information

Fraenkel, Peter J. ‘Central Africa’s ‘saucepan special’, The UNESCO Courier, XII, 9, 1959, pp. 26-27

Smyth, Rosaleen ‘A Note on the “Saucepan Special”: the people’s radio of Central Africa’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, vol. 4, no. 2, 1984

‘“The Saucepan Special”: the Poor Man’s Radio for Rural Populations’, (Government Printer, Lusaka, 1950) [source for the two testimonies]

For technical details and a selection of documents in the public domain:

For radio history of Zambian:

For a surviving set: The British Vintage Wireless and Television Museum

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