Sierra Leone: The rhythms of good health

May 12, 2012

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Sierra Leone: The rhythms of good health © Niklas Bergstrand/MSF

At MSF’s hospital in Bo in Sierra Leone, local health promoters are using song and dance to spread messages on how to stay healthy. Through traditional rhythms and tunes, mothers learn about the importance of breastfeeding and how to protect their children from malaria. This activity runs in parallel with the medical activities that focus on maternal health and treating malnutrition and malaria.

In the shade of a straw-roofed hut, around 30 women have gathered in a semicircle, many of them clutching little babies who look thin and frail. In the middle stands Christina Jonny, a Sierra Leonean woman in her late thirties, who works for MSF as a health educator. She points at a placard with pictures of various foods – pineapples, mangos, bananas, vegetables, fish and chicken – while explaining the importance of a nutritious diet.

Malnutrition is very common in Sierra Leone and a major contributor to the deaths of many young children. Seemingly paradoxically, the country is lush and green with plenty of natural resources. But it’s not a lack of food, but rather a lack of nutritious food, which has made malnutrition such a widespread problem in Sierra Leone, as well as in many other poor countries. An MSF survey in 2010 showed that nearly 4% of children in Bo district under five are severely acutely malnourished, which puts them at much higher risk of dying from other common diseases such as malaria. During 2011, MSF treated 1607 children with severe acute malnutrition at its intensive therapeutic feeding centre.

From a corner, another MSF health promoter starts a rhythmic thump on a big drum. Soon, all the women are on their feet, clapping their hands and swaying their hips, while repeating Christina’s chants about the importance of breastfeeding.

Christina runs through a repertoire of five songs, each one with a different health theme. The atmosphere is relaxed and jovial, and very different from that in the intensive care unit just a hundred metres away, where other MSF staff are busy fighting to save the lives of young children suffering from severe malaria and anaemia.

“The women and children really enjoy when we do the drumming,” says Christina after the session has finished. “They sing, play and laugh. It makes them feel more at home. Music also takes a message a long way. If they sing they will remember the song at home and what we taught them.”

Christina will often write a song by adding new lyrics to a traditional tune and rhythm. The songs are sung in either Krio – a local version of English developed by freed slaves who returned from America and the Caribbean – or Mende, a native language widely spoken in the Bo district.

“I’m not a trained musician.” she explains. “And writing a song is not always easy. It has to be one that suits the people and has a good beat. But as a health promoter I have to know various types of health songs to be able to spread the messages. I love traditional music from Sierra Leone, but I also like hip hop.”

Mariatu, 32 years old, is one of the women who participated in today’s health promotion session. She is the mother of James, an 11-month-old boy who is suffering from malnutrition and is currently being treated by MSF. “I love these sessions, although I don’t know how to sing much. Singing and dancing is good for people here because it takes our mind off depressions and anxieties,” she says with a smile.

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