Tomás Mamani

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow Since 1998
Radio Comunitaria Ondas del Titicaca
This description of Tomás Mamani's work was prepared when Tomás Mamani was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998 .


Tomás Mamani has created a network of self-owned and self-managed community radio stations among indigenous communities, which then finance and broadcast their own information systems. His integrated communication system has increased education about traditional indigenous knowledge and led a movement to exchange information between neighboring communities throughout the Andean region.

The New Idea

Tomás Mamani is reconstructing a world that maintains the positive aspects of ancestral culture through the means of community-based radio communication. Throughout the Andean region, he is creating radio networks which serve their communities. The communities learn to construct and manage their own radio stations, supported by electronics training courses and their own means of financing. Instead of being controlled by outsiders and subject to the rules and regulations of commercial, religious, or political interests, indigenous participants are free to broadcast in their own languages and cultures, respecting local and traditional norms.Tomás's primary objective is the rescue of the values and ethics of traditional culture, focusing on justice and history. Through his radio stations, he broadcasts oral history, legends, and traditions, so that this slowly dying culture can be revived and revalued. He uses the same model for all indigenous groups across the Andes.Tomás focuses particularly on youth, whom he teaches to value their traditions and freely express themselves. He is giving them tools to develop pride in their traditions and remember their roots, so that when they become broadcasters they will have the knowledge necessary to teach over the radio.

The Problem

Indigenous groups across the Andes, including Aymara, Quechua, and others, are slowly losing their cultural identity in today's world and are at the point of losing the last generation of their ancestors who still maintain their original languages and some forms of community life. Only a small proportion of the population, mostly the elderly, maintain their traditional forms of living and values for the ecosystem, cosmo-vision, and community. The youth population is simply becoming acculturated to the western, more modern lifestyles. In a study of 200 people in his own town of Huarina, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, Tomás found that 70 percent were contemptuous of their origins and another twenty percent were indifferent.Means of communication do not help the problem. Existing radio and television stations located in the capitals and other cities support a total acculturation through their programs; they are neither within the reach of the majority of the rural population nor expressive of their needs and cultural identities. Even radio stations that claim to be "of the people" and to voice indigenous interests have other agendas that subject indigenous groups wishing to access these stations to varying forms of political and religious dictates. City stations are purely commercial and for profit.

The Strategy

Using his experience and training as an artist, Tomás begins his work in a new community by offering courses in painting and drawing to appeal to the local youth. They pay a small fee which covers supplies, with any remainder going to support the community radio. During the art course, he begins to discuss electronics and how community radios function. The youth who display interest continue their instruction on electronics with Tomás, who starts a class when a team of four or more has formed.Tomás teaches these teams about the different parts of the radio, how they work, and how to build and manage a community radio system. He provides technical and financial support, the "how-to's" during construction of a radio, and 50 percent of the start-up financing. The community makes up the rest. With Tomás's process, they are able to develop a station for a small fraction of what it would cost if they bought the equipment on the market. When their radios are up and running, the communities assume responsibility for their own financing. Each comes up with its own plan: for example, some set aside their income from artesanal activities or part of their crop harvests to support their community radio station.Tomás and members of his organization rotate regularly among communities that are establishing radio stations, providing support and technical assistance. He looks for a person with genuine links to the community, not necessarily someone with special training, to direct the radio station as it moves completely into the hands of the community and its trained radio team. The community decides what to broadcast. Daily news includes sports events, agricultural information, health care, lost animals, cultural events such as traditional fiestas, music and folk tales, special seminars, and other issues of local interest. Many of the news shows and cultural programs are then exchanged with other communities. In the process, ancestral messages are transmitted to counter the messages from a corrupt modern world. For example, the three most important messages of the Aymara culture are: "Ama Sua," (don't steal); "Ama Qhilla," (don't be lazy); and "Ama Llulla," (don't lie). Radio programs conserve the "moja arus," or different manners of expression, the sweet local words of a community.To create a national link between these community radios, in 1988 Tomás founded the Association of Aymara Radio Stations in La Paz. The director of each member station, some of whom are men and some women, is also a member of the Association, which stipulates that the radios will have no political or religious affiliations. In addition to its role as a coordinating organization, the Association also provides technical and financial support for the construction of new radios. Its membership of fifteen corresponds to fifteen radio stations that include Titicaca Radio and TV, based in the area of Huarina around Lake Titicaca, and other departments of the country, including Radio Toledo in Oruro, Potosí, and Sucre. The network is reaching hundreds of thousands of people in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru, and Tomás is now working to bring Ecuador into the network. He will continue until he has linked all indigenous communities from the plains of Argentina to the highlands of Ecuador. Bolivia is only a start to his dream for an Andean regional community radio system. Starting with the Titicaca network, Tomás has plans to bring a community television to every community in the region as well.

The Person

As a child, Tomás was interested in methods of communication and indigenous cultures. As a high school student, his primary interests were poetry and literature. He enjoyed reciting his poems about his community and culture and received numerous honors for his works. As a student in teacher training school, he received the honor of poet laureate for his poems.After graduating from teacher training school, Tomás went to work on Bolivia's border with Peru, where he expanded his ideas on communication through painting, murals, music, and recitals. Later he founded an art academy, called Fray José A. Zampa, where he taught cultural ideology, community communication, and painting to children, youth and adults from 1980 to 1985.Tomás remembers a time in his childhood when he defended his culture despite costs. He pointed out a teacher's mispronunciation of an Aymara word, uta. For many years the other students criticized and made fun of his Aymara pronunciation. Some teachers lowered his grades due to his rebelliousness, though others commended him for speaking the truth without fear.Although Tomás found great satisfaction in his art and poetry, he was always looking for a way to communicate with larger and more diverse groups of people. In order to accomplish this he turned to the radio in his early twenties. He began to take radios apart, to see how they worked and to transmit his messages to ever larger groups of people. While living on the border with Peru, Tomás saw that prices of transmitters were high, and the people didn't have money to buy them. Tomás found other sources to build radios, taking pieces from his bicycle to use in the construction of a radio built in the countryside, without modern technology. Using the wind as an energy source, Tomás built his first radio, which transmitted a distance of three to four kilometers. He continued to construct radios at low cost, each time with a wider range of broadcast. To learn more about his new passion, Tomás attended electronics and television courses, where his dream for massive communication with cultural character began.Although Tomás received formal training as a teacher, his heart is in radio and the transmission of his culture. Both his parents are first-generation Aymaras who don't speak Spanish and have lived all their lives in the countryside of Bolivia. Tomás, through his network of community radios, continues the tradition and culture his parents taught him.