Fighting malaria through pop music

DAKAR, Senegal — “My woman went home. My woman went back. Brother, I’m just desperate,” croons Pape Diouf in the opening bars of the new single by fellow Senegalese pop star, Youssou N'Dour.

But, this is no ordinary ballad of heartbreak.

The song tells the story of a man whose girlfriend left him because he got malaria. As he seeks sympathy, members of the community tell him it's all his fault. He should have been sleeping under a treated mosquito net.

The song, whose title, "Xeex Sibburu," means "Fight Malaria," is the result of a collaboration between the Youssou N'Dour Foundation and the U.S.-based nonprofit organization Malaria No More. It is part of Malaria No More's mission to use “marketing muscle” from the private sector to end malaria deaths worldwide.

The nonprofit has already teamed up with celebrities like Sean Combs, Ashton Kutcher and David Beckham. If star power and effective marketing can sell digital cameras and tennis shoes, then why can't they also get people to donate mosquito nets, or in the case of “Xeex Sibburu,” sleep under one?

“Our strategy here in Senegal is to take some of those techniques and some of those resources and put them behind some of the best local marketers,” said Martin Edlund, the group's Senegal Project Director. “There's a strong case to be made that Youssou N'Dour is the best local marketer here in West Africa.”

No More Excuses

Though preventable and treatable, malaria kills one million people a year, 90 percent of them Africans. Malaria kills more African children than any other disease, one every 30 seconds.

Senegal’s health ministry and National Malaria Control Program are already waging an impressive offensive against the disease. Senegal reported a dramatic drop in cases earlier this year, largely due to rapid diagnostic testing and improved treatment. In some regions, no cases were reported in 2008.

Yet, many Senegalese still accept the disease as a fact of life, and it continues to be a leading cause of death and developmental problems in children.

“Hey, take it easy, remember that God’s will prevails,” the song’s protagonist says as people chide him.

“No, talk is cheap,” the woman responds.

“You’re teasing,” he says.

“No, I’m not,” she says. “You have not been careful. Didn’t you get a mosquito net? You, my boy, what this woman is saying is the absolute truth. Had you protected yourself, you would have been malaria free.”

Music is a powerful educational tool in Africa, where many are illiterate, and the song was set to a lively, mbalax rhythm and produced in Wolof, Serere and Pulaar, the three most common languages in Senegal.

“You need to pay attention to what the population listens to the most in order to touch them and raise public awareness,” singer-activist Youssou N'Dour told GlobalPost.  

“We have all had family or friends who have died from malaria,"said N'Dour. “I see all the problems that we experience here, and if I think I bring something to an issue, I do it.”

As the song hit airwaves, Senegal and its international partners launched a campaign to distribute two million treated mosquito nets nationwide. The goal of the week-long effort was to get every child under age five sleeping under a net.

The song was also distributed to radio stations and 1,300 health huts nationwide in the hopes of creating a viral, grassroots education effort.

“People love the song,” said Dr. Abdou Karim Diop, chief medical officer in Pikine, one of two Dakar suburbs targeted in the campaign. “The song is a welcome tool because it reinforces the distribution and awareness campaign we are doing.”

As health volunteers went door-to-door in Pikine, others rented an SUV and drove it through the neighborhoods with the song blaring from speakers mounted on top.

“The best opportunity for a humanitarian win in the world today”

Malaria is both a cause and consequence of poverty in Africa. It keeps children out of school, farmers out of fields and tourists out of malaria-endemic countries. The World Health Organization estimates malaria costs Africa $12 billion a year in health expenditures and lost productivity.

Yet, the marketing heavyweights who founded Malaria No More saw more than a devastating disease; they saw a good investment.

Malaria wasn’t eradicated in the United States until the 1950s, and the tools to make Africa malaria-free exist. Thanks to improved medicines, treated mosquito nets, and home spraying, countries like Ethiopia, Rwanda and Eritrea have cut malaria deaths in half. The island of Zanzibar have all but eliminated deaths.

“Our leadership came at [malaria], and really sees it, as the best opportunity for a humanitarian win in the world today,” Edlund said. “Our hope is that we can tick malaria off the list and then take some of these techniques and apply them to other challenges down the road.”

More GlobalPost dispatches about the fight against malaria:

The bug wars (the global fight against malaria)

More GlobalPost dispatches about Senegal:

Light and darkness on Goree Island

Senegalese women aim for political role

Gays under threat in Senegal