Fighting Malaria With Music

It's 9pm; do you know where your bednet is?

Fellows Spring 2011

By David Taylor

April 25, 2011

Also published on ABC's "Save One"

A Q&A with Yacine Djibo

Senegal Country Director, Malaria No More

In Senegal, the nonprofit Malaria No More has worked with Youssou NDour and other top musicians on a campaign to engage all of society in the fight against malaria.

Q: How did the Xeex Sibbiru campaign start?

YD: Xeex Sibbiru means "Fighting malaria" in Wolof. We started in Senegal in 2009, and we recorded a Xeex Sibbiru song with Youssou NDour and other famous artists. In Senegal, everybody knows all of Youssou NDour's songs by heart. Well if you can get 8 million people to know these songs by heart, we should be able to lead to a change in behavior. Right now, Senegal and other countries are distributing mosquito nets to families through their universal coverage campaigns, and the biggest challenge is ensuring that people use them and sleep under the nets.

In January 2010 there was a universal coverage campaign in Senegal: One sleeping space, one mosquito net. The national malaria control program led the effort, distributing nets for every single bed in Senegal. They've covered six regions to date, distributing nets to cover every single bed in those regions.

In February 2010 we had the first American Idol-like song contest, across all 14 regions of Senegal. We invited people to write songs on malaria. Before they could enter, they had to fill out a quiz on malaria and get a certain number of right answers. From the pre-selection phase, which got more than 1,000 entries, we selected 48 contestants. They could write their songs in any language. There was a big finale in June 2010, and the winner got to sing one of his songs onstage with Youssou NDour in Paris. An album came out with his song and he's now our ambassador for the Xeex Sibbiru campaign. We have a new song contest that started in March and goes through June.

In September 2010 we launched Nightwatch. In Senegal it's called Fanaan Jamm, meaning, "Sleep Peacefully." The idea is, "It's 9 pm. Are you and your family safe under your bed net? This is Youssou NDour. Fanaan Jamm." It came from the awareness campaign in the U.S., "It's 10 pm, do you know where your children are?" Now every night at 9 pm, these PSAs air on three national radio stations and many community radio stations.

Q: Why 9 o'clock?

YD: From 9 o'clock on is the time when people are at risk of malaria, and that's when we want people to be under their nets. We know that not everyone is going to bed at 9 pm but it's a reminder "“ even if they're not going to bed yet "“ that if their children are going to bed, they should remember to put up the nets.

Q: How did Youssou NDour get involved?

YD: Youssou and his brother Boubacar, who's a music producer, were often invited to events at the United Nations in the U.S. and they came to the realization that they wanted to do something in their own country. Bouba started discussing it with Youssou, saying, "In the U.S. we go to these events and make these great speeches but meanwhile in our country, nothing's happening." So they came to us and said, "We want to take the lead, work with you as the on-the-ground partner to implement and lead the project." That's how Xeex Sibbiru and Senegal Surround Sound was created, and how Youssou and Bouba got involved.

Q: Did the musicians share personal stories of their own experiences with malaria?

YD: Here everyone has had very strong experiences with malaria. We've all had malaria and everyone has a story of losing someone to malaria. The coordinator of our national malaria control program tells the story of when he was a district doctor in the district of Bignona and he kept signing death certificates. One morning he signed more than twelve. At the end of that morning he broke down, saying, "This can't continue."
His colleagues said, "Don't worry. The rainy season will soon be over and this won't be happening anymore." And he said, "Yes, but how can we let so many people die and do nothing?" He contacted the national malaria control program and said, "What can we do?"

Q: How have people responded to the songs?

YD: People know the songs. I've heard it just about anywhere, as you're walking. We've had visits in villages where people come up and say, "˜Oh, you work with Youssou?' and they start singing his song, especially children. Everyone knows the songs by heart. There's one we want to produce a video for, and the rhythm is so catchy, everywhere you go, as soon as you say "Sunu Societé," meaning "Our Society," people go, "Ah, Sunu Societé! We watch it!" It talks about how everyone is moving and working on fighting malaria.

Q: Has the campaign affected the number of malaria cases?

YD: Absolutely. Since 2006 in Senegal there's been a significant decrease in malaria cases, from 1.5 million in 2006 to 175,000 in 2009. Even discounting the reduction in cases due to better diagnosis, that's remarkable.

Q: Besides these national and international artists, do you work with local griots?

YD: We haven't centered a strategy around them but the whole idea of storytelling, working with artists and musicians to tell stories, is based on the griot culture.

David Taylor traveled to West Africa on a fellowship with the International Reporting Project (IRP).