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nettime: Radio Colifata reaches out to everyone
Roberto Paci Dalo' on Fri, 21 Jun 96 10:07 MDT


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nettime: Radio Colifata reaches out to everyone


 Radio Colifata reaches out to everyone

     by Uki Go=F1i - Buenos Aires - 2 June 1996

 A radio programme put together by mental patients at a
 psychiatric hospital is reaching out and touching some
 12 million listeners in Argentina, who tune in for the kind
 of insights they don't get from professional radio
 journalists.

  "A psychiatric hospital resembles an archaeological site
  where things that are usually hidden below ground in
  our daily lives can be found on the surface," says
  Alfredo Olivera, the 29-year-old graduate psychology
  student who began Radio Colifata (Spanish slang for
  "Loony Radio") with nothing more than a single cassette
  recorder five years ago.

  Olivera was doing volunteer work at the Borda mental
  hospital in the city of Buenos Aires when friends at a
  small community radio asked to interview him on
  conditions at the institution. "I thought, why not interview
  the patients instead?"

  The first Colifata programmes were recorded by
  patients on cassettes at the hospital and then
  transmitted on small community stations. The tapes
  attracted so many calls from listeners that they were
  soon picked up by network radio shows.

  "I am not surprised by this success," says Nelson
  Castro, the no-nonsense political journalist who began
  including Colifata tapes in his top-rated morning news
  show Puntos de vista three years ago. "We are pleased
  to see that this original concept has helped to break
  down the barrier which exists between society and the
  asylum."

  Nobody is more pleased than the patients themselves,
  who anxiously await for the Saturday afternoon
  gatherings when the tapes are put together and Colifata
  transmits live within the large confines of the state
  hospital, which covers some five city blocks.

  "I am a neurotic, schizophrenic psychopath but I am not
  stupid," says Garc=E9s, the Emperor of Paranoia, one of
  the stars of Colifata.

  Garc=E9s (51) came up with the name for the radio and
  has no illusions regarding his mental state. "I've
  considered myself crazy since I was a child, but my
  madness is preferable to the kind of sanity that
  psychiatrists try to sell me."

  He is known as "The Philosopher" by his fellow patients.
  "The psychiatrist who ordered my commitment said he
  was a democrat. Democracy would imply the
  participation of patients in the management of their
  asylums - government of the insane, by the insane, for
  the insane. So my psychiatrist may be sane, but is he
  coherent?"

  This fixation on democratic rule reflects the hardships
  suffered in a country which suffered a long succession
  of military governments this century. Garc=E9s' slide into
  insanity began over twenty years ago when his father, a
  well-known right-wing university professor and
  intellectual, was murdered in the political violence which
  engulfed Argentina during the 1970s.

  The unresolved legacy of Argentina's 30,000
  desaparecidos is one of the main topics of discussion
  on Colifata. A poem by patient Guillermo S. on the
  subject was recently aired:

            ...Don't count the dead. Don't remember their
            names. Don't manifest.
            Don't protest. Don't write about freedom...
            You are nothing. You will not be born. You
            will own nothing.
            You have ceased to exist. You lie under the
            fragments of a cemetery, in a common grave,
            without a name, without blessing.

  Other echoes of Argentina's recent history are heard on
  the Borda's radio station. "I am the Prodigious Son,"
  says Ramon, a veteran of the 1982 Falklands war
  between Argentina and Great Britain who suffered such
  deep psychological damage during that conflict that he
  has spent the last 13 years under treatment.

  Ramon claims there are seven "Prodigious Sons" in the
  world ("two in the United States"). He is in charge of
  programming Argentine folk music for Colifata and
  speaks in loud, sudden bursts.

  "I want to send my regards to (former British Prime
  Minister) Margaret Thatcher," he suddenly blares out.
  "Tell her we don't want any more wars. I also want to
  send my regards to Prince Andrew. Even though he
  fought against us in Malvinas, he is also a Prodigious
  Son. Tell them we want peace."

  "Sometimes I don't know if this is science or fiction,"
  says Olivera about the radio station at the hospital.
  Olivera collects no pay for his work at the Borda and
  survives on $500 a month he earns at the National
  Census Bureau, bicycling around the city gathering part
  of the data with which the government puts together the
  wholesale prices index.

  It has been five long years of sacrifice for Olivera and
  his partner Maria Vieira, a social psychologist who
  collaborates in setting up the programme. They take two
  buses and a train to get from their home to the Borda.
  "We have to carry all the radio equipment with us, back
  and forth each Saturday."

  Olivera is aware that the work done by Colifata may be
  trivialised by over-exposure. Behind the tapes which are
  fragmented into 30-second sound bites lurks the darker
  face of madness, the lonely, howling men who shuffle
  through the cold corridors of the asylum, many of them
  with amputated limbs or physically disfigured beyond
  recognition, their faces a pulpy geography of pain.

  "Our team believes in the existence of madness and that
  it is a very painful state," Olivera says. "But when you
  throw patients into a walled institution like the Borda you
  only aggravate their condition."

  As he moves through the patches of dirt which pass for
  a garden at the state hospital Olivera is greeted with
  smiles. All the while he is followed with saintly devotion
  by a patient who used to dress up as "Vanessa" for the
  summer carnival shows in Buenos Aires province. Now,
  as the star of the "Vanessa Show" on Colifata, he has
  found a place to express his feminine side without
  meeting the harsh discrimination which probably
  triggered his disturbed state.

  A group of young men stops Olivera to ask about an
  upcoming visit by a rock musician, wanting to make sure
  there will be a guitar available for him. In their thick
  Andean sweaters, with their sunglasses and beads, they
  are indistinguishable from the myriad of young
  Argentines "outside" who congregate for rock shows at
  any of city's night spots - until they lower their
  sunglasses and you can see their eyes.

  "Those kids are from the HIV-positive ward," says
  Olivera as they drift away. "They are walking back now
  because they need special permission to go outside it,
  they are erroneously catalogued by the hospital
  authorities under the same category as dangerous
  psychopaths. In fact, the two groups share neighbouring
  wards behind the old greenhouse."

  One of the greatest successes of the radio has been
  re-establishing links between patients and their families.
  Angel, in charge of the "Borda Tango Club," was
  flooded with letters from old friends in his native town of
  Bragado who recognised him when he appeared on TV
  to accept a special media award for the programme last
  month.

  "The show has broken down the wall separating us from
  the outside world," said Angel, who is in his mid-70s and
  has spent the last 37 years inside. Unknown to him as of
  yet, his long-lost daughter has been in contact with the
  hospital as a result of the show and wants to renew
  contact with her father and introduce him to his three
  grandchildren.

  "We are working with the hospital doctors to prepare
  Angel for this shock," says Olivera. "We hope that he
  will eventually be released for visits to his home town so
  that he can rebuild his family ties."

  Last year, the radio staged a coup when for the first time
  the Borda opened its doors to the outside world and
  some 1,000 people joined its 1,200 patients for an
  afternoon of music in the spacious but dilapidated
  gardens of the 150-year-old institution. "We had tango,
  rock and even classical ballet," says Olivera. When the
  afternoon ended, a special watch was placed at the exit
  gate in case any of the patients attempted to escape.
  Not a single one tried.

  In the outside world, Colifata has caused quite a stir.
  Taxi driver Ruben Rotolo often tunes in and likes what
  he hears. "There are a lot of people in the real world
  who are just as crazy as they are but who conceal it
  much more cleverly."

  The spots are often quoted in the local press. During
  last year's presidential elections the Borda patients, who
  by law are not allowed to vote, held their own ballot,
  organised by the radio, and reelected President Carlos
  Menem for a second term of office by the same margin
  as their fellow Argentines outside did. The opposition
  daily P=E1gina/12 ran the Borda vote on the front page.

  One of the most popular spots is the Colifata "column"
  which has contained nuggets by patients such as:
  "Some people kill, some steal. I think it is all due to a
  single reason. The brain. Some use it only for their own
  benefit while others use it for the benefit of others. How
  do you use yours? Think about it."

  At other times the patients make use of the radio to
  complain about hospital conditions: "When somebody
  here falls, we don't even have a wheelchair or a
  stretcher to pick them up, so our feelings get frozen,"
  one angry patient recently said on air.

  Since Colifata recently started getting media attention,
  Olivera has started getting calls from Hollywood
  producers interested in buying film rights to the story.
  "We have had two calls from different studios in the
  United States so far," Vieira said. "Journalists who have
  written about us have been getting calls from the U.S.
  as well."

  The full names of the patients who participate
     in Radio Colifata have not been included in this
   article at the request of the volunteers who
   manage the project.

   An article by the same writer based on this
    report was published in The Sunday Times of
   London on 26 May 1996.

Copyright c FIRST PAGE 1996 - Todos los derechos reservados - All
   rights reserved

________________________________________________________
Bruce Girard
AMARC - Pulsar
Email: bgirard {AT} pulsar.org.ec
http://www.web.net/amarc/pulsar.html
Tel: +(593-2) 525-521    Fax/Tel: +(593-2) 542-818
Avenida America 3584, Casilla 17-08-8489, Quito, Ecuador

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