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African musicians join forces against polio

By Chioma Obinna
To ensure total eradication of poliomyelitis in Africa, musicians are lending their voices for the final push to kick polio out of the continent. Leading the chorus in the fight against the crippling childhood disease are the shooting stars of world music: Staff Benda Bilili.

Chairman, National PolioPlus Committee of Rotary International, Busuyi Onabolu who revealed the musical angle to combating polio in Africa, Staff Benda Bilili, which means “look beyond appearances” in Lingala, explained that the musicians comprise eight former street musicians from Kinshasa, whose debut album Très Très Fort , produced and distributed by the Belgian record company, Crammed Discs, has received international media acclaim and won the 2009 Womex Artist award.

In a chat with Good Health Weekly in Lagos, Onabolu said the core of the band consists of four singers, who are all polio survivors. Their signature song, “Polio”, speaks of the disease that drastically changed their lives, and urges parents to immunise their children.

Called “The Kings of the Congo” by the French newspaper La Libération, the band will launch its much anticipated Europe tour on 11 April in Dortmund, Germany. Later this year, French filmmakers Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye will release a feature length documentary on Staff Benda Bilili and the making of their debut album.

He said the song Our Song ‘Polio’ is simply to implore parents to take their children to health clinics to be vaccinated, as the World Health Organisation recommends. Polio eradication has been Rotary’s top priority for more than two decades. The international humanitarian service organisation is a spearheading partner in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, along with WHO, UNICEF, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to Onabolu, out of the l 735 polio cases in Africa in 2009, Nigeria recorded 388 cases.

The announcement of Staff Benda Bilili’s appointment coincides with a regional polio summit in Douala held between 7 through 9 April and the arrival of a football, signed by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and a growing number of notable “Kick polio out of Africa” advocates, on its 4-month journey through 22 polio-affected African countries to mobilize the public for the massive immunizations campaign in West and Central Africa this spring.

A total of 19 countries in West and Central Africa will participate in synchronized national immunization activities 24-27 April, targeting 85 million children under the age of five. The next immunisation round in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where three polio cases wererecorded last year, will start on May 1. The campaign received a further boost from West African musicians.

In January, Nigerian folk musician Dan Maraya Jos, who has stirred the hearts of Nigerians with songs on a range of social issues for over four decades, was named Rotary’s Goodwill Ambassador for polio eradication in Nigeria. A custodian of Hausa culture and tradition, Jos has recorded three radio public service announcements in Hausa in a regional version of Rotary’s “We are this close to Ending Polio” campaign. “President Yar’Adua is calling, the Sultan of Sokoto is calling, traditional and religious leaders are calling, and Rotary International is calling all families to take children under five years for polio immunisation,” he says in one of the radio clips.

Such social mobilization efforts helped vaccinate more than 40 million children during recent Immunization Plus Days in Nigeria.

Great progress has been made, and the incidence of polio infection has plunged from about 350,000 cases in 1988 to fewer than 2,000 in 2009 worldwide.


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