To the ever-growing litany of unconventional public-health campaigns (sexy cancer advertisements! film festivals about excrement!) you can add one that even Simon Cowell might love: an American Idol–style contest about malaria. Tonight, in Dakar, Senegal, nine finalists out of 700 entrants will take to the stage, belt out songs, and vie for a recording deal with one of the country’s most powerful producers. Don’t expect any Beatles or Broadway standards, though. All the songs have been written by the contestants, and they’re all about preventing malaria, which kills more than a million people each year.
The idea behind the campaign is simple and brilliant: if you’re working in public health and you want to change people’s behavior for the better, don’t try to convince them yourselves. Instead, find someone outside the medical community who already knows how. In this case, the nonprofit Malaria No More wanted to encourage the use of bed nets, but “we didn’t want to be this NGO from New York writing songs like, ‘Oh, you should sleep under a net,’ ” says Emily Bergantino, MNM’s director of communications.
So last year, the group hooked up with Youssou N’Dour, one of Senegal’s biggest pop stars, who wrote a hit song, “Xeex Sibbiru” (shown in the clip above), that didn’t chide its listeners so much as tell a cautionary tale. “The story is about what you miss out on when you don’t protect yourself from malaria,” says Bergantino. “It’s about a guy who gets sick, and his girlfriend leaves him, and he can’t go to work, so he isn’t earning money. It’s culturally relevant. The refrain is like, ‘This is your own fault, you know better than this.’ It’s encouraging local families to take responsibility.”
It’s no coincidence that the song was released with a special concert the night before the Senegalese government kicked off a massive distribution of bed nets for every child younger than 5. N’Dour made sure its release got plenty of publicity, says Kate Campana, Malaria No More’s director of programs. “He said, ‘I want to make sure that all the people who might not necessarily hear about this concert know what we’re doing. So I’m just going to have a parade through the streets.’ And he ran through the streets and the slums, and he got two or three of the most famous wrestlers in Senegal to come along, and he blasted the song with speakers on top of the truck, and people were coming out of their doorways and fainting. It was 110 degrees and he was sweating, and he did that for four hours.”
For its follow-up, Malaria No More turned to Ndour’s brother—that’s Bouba N’Dour, the producer—to promote and serve as a judge for its Idol–style contest. The regional finalists have competed in concerts around the country, drawing crowds of up to 20,000 people. But the contest isn’t all glitz: “Even to submit a demo you had to take a malaria quiz and pass,” says Bergantino. The finalists have also spent a week each interning in “local health huts,” and they’ll need to use the knowledge they’ve gleaned from that experience. “What they’re being judged on is not only their singing and songwriting,” says Bergantino, “but how effective they are as communicators to the rest of the country about fighting malaria.”
They’ll have to live up to some high standards. Bouba is already showing amusing Cowell-like tendencies in a video offering a sneak peek at the competition. Of the contestants’ work thus far, he says, “Some of it is good. Some of it is crap.” Maybe, but it’s all for a very good cause.