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Senegalese Singer Leads Fight Against Malaria

Despite being preventable and treatable, malaria kills more African children than any other disease. Senegalese superstar, Youssou N'Dour, has teamed up with an American nonprofit to turn the tide on this devastating disease through pop music.

The most recent release by international singing sensation, Youssou N'Dour, tells the story of a man whose girlfriend has left him because he got malaria. As he seeks sympathy from members of the community, they tell him it is all his fault. He should have protected himself by 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 U.S.-based nonprofit, "Malaria No More."

The two-year initiative is called "Surround Sound : Senegal." It is part of Malaria No More's unique mission to apply marketing techniques from the private sector to the humanitarian fight to end malaria deaths worldwide. Youssou N'Dour, they say, is arguably the best local marketer in West Africa.

Leading cause of death in children

Malaria kills about one million people annually, and nine out of 10 of them are Africans. Pregnant women and children are the most vulnerable to the disease, and it is estimated that every 30 seconds a child dies of malaria. Malaria also impedes economic development and is one of the major contributors to poverty in Africa.

Martin Edlund is Malaria No More's Senegal Project Director. Though the tools to treat, prevent and eventually eradicate malaria exist, he says too many Africans simply accept the disease as a fact of life. Therefore, mobilizing communities is key.

"That is the point of this song," he said. "The chorus is Bul ñu ray, which essentially means no more excuses, and Youssou is saying we all know this problem, we all know what causes it and we all know how to prevent it, so there are no more excuses it is time to take care of it as a society. "

Thanks to rapid diagnostic testing and government-led awareness campaigns, Senegal reported dramatic drops in malaria mortality earlier this year but the disease is still a leading cause of death in children.

Music - powerful tool

As the song was released last week, Senegal's Health Ministry and its international partners launched a campaign to distribute two million insecticide-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 1300 health huts around the country.

Edlund says the song was created to inspire a grassroots, community-led education effort and reinforce the work of Senegalese health workers.

"They are telling us what works here in Senegal, what they have seen for 25 years works in marketing to the village level with music, and now applying that to malaria, so the song, Xeex Sibburu, is in Wolof," he said.

"It is also recorded in Sereer and Pulaar, the second and third most popular languages, here in Senegal, is the starting point. It is a statement of purpose and a challenge to all sectors of Senegalese society to get involved and fight malaria. That is what Xeex Sibburu means in Wolof," he added.

Pikine was one of two Dakar suburbs targeted in the campaign. It is a poor, overcrowded neighborhood whose sandy streets are notorious for flooding during the rainy season, making them ideal breeding grounds for mosquitos.

As part of last week's campaign, health workers rented an SUV and drove it through the neighborhoods with the song blaring from speakers mounted on top. Volunteers went door-to-door handing out coupons for free mosquito nets and giving vitamin-A supplements and deworming medicine to children.

Dr. Abdou Karim Diop is the chief medical officer for Pikine. He says response to the song has been overwhelmingly positive.

He says the song is a welcome tool because it reinforces the distribution efforts and the awareness campaign. A particularly positive factor is that the song was recorded in so many languages, therefore a lot of people can identify with it. He says people really love the song.

Youssou N'Dour says music is a powerful educational tool in Africa, and his popularity has given him both a responsibility and an opportunity to effect change.

He says he feels he can do more than music. He sees all the problems that people experience in Senegal, and if he thinks he can bring something to an issue, he does it. He believes people now need other sources, besides just politicians, to see that their issues are being recognized. Though he is happy to do it, he says he plans to remain just a musician who is involved in activism.

Youssou N'Dour says malaria is a reality of everyday life in Senegal, but it does not have to be. Once malaria is under control, he says the strategies developed in this Surround Sound campaign can be applied to other issues.