Feliciano dos Santos
Photograph by Rebecca J. Vander Meulen
Feliciano dos Santos is fighting disease … with a guitar.
His internationally acclaimed band, Massukos, uses music to spread messages of sanitation and hygiene to some of the poorest, most remote villages in Mozambique. As his songs provide inspiration and information, the nongovernmental organization (NGO) he co-founded provides tangible projects to improve health and lift villagers out of poverty.
Santos focuses his efforts on Niassa Province, where he was born and still lives today. Few places on Earth need his help more. Life expectancy is just 42 years, more than half the population lives in poverty, and 61 percent cannot read or write. Only 250 miles (400 kilometers) of paved roads run through the huge province, just 4 percent of homes have electricity, and not even 3 percent have running water.
“Niassa,” Santos observes, “has always been a forgotten place. In the capital city things are improving, but just a few kilometers away people are collecting water from rivers and using the bush instead of latrines. In the village where I grew up, families really have nothing at all.”
Musical stardom gave Santos the opportunity to flee Niassa; instead he’s made improving conditions here his life’s work. “So many people still need my help, why would I leave? I am living proof of what they can achieve.”
Santos had more to overcome than the hardships of life in Niassa. As a young child he contracted polio from contaminated water, and he has been hobbled from the disease ever since. “I don’t want to see anyone else go through what I did because of unclean water,” he says.
Not surprisingly, people with physical disabilities draw particular inspiration from his example. “When I was young,” he recalls, “I never believed I would grow up, get married, have children, drive a car, and live such a full life. Even today, families here often hide children with physical problems and don’t send them to school. But you have to believe in yourself, work hard, and transform every challenge into something good. Whoever you are, wherever you live, you can do good things for the world.”
Today, one of the most powerful tools in Santos's fight for better sanitation is his music. As one of Africa’s leading musicians, he has toured Europe and released CDs, but the songs he brings to local villages are unique. The lyrics talk about washing hands, boiling water, preventing diseases, and building latrines. Words are set to local melodies, woven with traditional rhythms, and sung in tribal languages—and audiences love it. Many times entire villages attend his concerts, dancing and singing along. “People don’t like to talk about toilets or poor sanitation,” says Santos, “but if you put those messages to music they are no longer taboo.”
Santos’s hit song, "Wash Your Hands," is part of a public health campaign created by his NGO, Estamos. The project has successfully convinced villagers to install thousands of sustainable EcoSan latrines, dramatically improving sanitation and reducing disease throughout the region.
“Until now,” he notes, “people didn’t associate disease with dirty water. They would put traditional open latrines right next to wells, contaminating the drinking water.”
EcoSan’s shallow brick-lined pits prevent that from happening. Since tossing ash on the waste is part of the process, people have a reason to wash hands more frequently. As an added benefit, the composting toilets turn waste into a natural fertilizer local farmers can use. Not only does this eliminate the need for expensive artificial fertilizer, but it also has significantly increased crop production, allowing some farm families to earn income for the very first time.
Santos's NGO also works on grassroots outreach programs to install pumps for clean water, support HIV/AIDS education and prevention, conduct health studies, combat a new cholera epidemic, bring homes and supplies to thousands of sick and orphaned children, lead reforestation efforts, and promote a new eco-friendly charcoal program.
Many of these projects tap both Santos’s organizational and musical skills to connect with and motivate communities. Yet the cornerstone of his mission remains battling waterborne disease through improved sanitation and access to clean water. “Even when the right HIV/AIDS medicine reaches our villages, people may swallow the pills with contaminated water. Until we address that, how can any other initiative be truly effective?”
Santos is working on a resource he hopes will empower Mozambique’s community workers to do even more. He is translating an internationally respected handbook, "A Community Guide to Environmental Health," from English into Portuguese—and designing some of the artwork himself. Despite doing that, directing his NGO, and keeping up with 200 already scheduled concerts, Santos feels he is just getting started. “Now that I’ve finished my degrees"—he earned two simultaneously, with honors, from different universities—"I’ll have time to really get something done.”
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