Acclaimed African Musicians lend their voice to kick polio out of Africa

Congolese band Staff Benda Bilili joins Rotary's End Polio Now campaign as goodwill ambassadors

EVANSTON, Ill. - In the lead-up to the World Cup in South Africa this summer, musicians across Africa are lending their voice 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.

Staff Benda Bilili, which means "look beyond appearances" in Lingala, is a group of 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. 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 immunize 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. On May 13, French filmmakers Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye will present a feature length documentary on Staff Benda Bilili and the making of their debut album at the International Film Festival in Cannes.

"Of course we're happy to be part of the campaign. After all, we're handicapped by polio, and we are the first group to sing about polio, so naturally we're ready to help," says band leader Ricky Likabu after being named Rotary polio goodwill ambassadors. "Our song `Polio' is simply to implore parents to take their children to health clinics to be vaccinated, as the WHO (World Health Organization) recommends. Parents are responsible for their children, and they need to know how to avoid diseases."

Polio eradication has been Rotary's top priority for more than two decades. The international humanitarian service organization is a spearheading partner in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, along with WHO, Unicef, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Of the total 735 polio cases in Africa in 2009, 388 cases were recorded in Nigeria, the last African country where polio is still endemic.

"I'm happy and thankful that Staff Benda Bilili teamed us with us to score that final goal. We are on the brink of eradicating this life-threatening, cruel disease, but as long as there is one case of polio, no African child will be safe," says Ambroise Kasongo of Kinshasa, who chairs Rotary's African Regional PolioPlus Committee. "Staff Benda's beautiful Congolese rumba-rooted songs are overlaid with vibrant and wise lyrics. Being polio victims themselves, people will take their message to heart."

A total of 19 countries in West and Central Africa participated in synchronized national immunization activities last month, targeting 85 million children under the age of five. The next immunization rounds in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where three polio cases were recorded last year, will be in July and August.

"Polio cases are becoming rare now, and attitudes are improving. But there are still places in the Congo where too many children are not vaccinated," says band member Ngamball Lokompa.

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 immunization," 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.

In neighboring Benin, pop singer and Unicef ambassador Zeynab Abib has been lending her voice to the polio eradication campaign and childhood vaccination with her song "Sauvons la vie de nos enfants" (Let's save the life of our children) and participation in many local social mobilization events.

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. More than two billion children have been immunized in 122 countries, preventing five million cases of paralysis and 250,000 pediatric deaths.

Rotary recently pledged to raise US$200 million to match $355 million in challenge grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. All of the resulting $555 million will be spent in support of eradication activities.

Rotary club members worldwide have contributed more than $900 million and countless volunteer hours to the effort and are now working aggressively to raise the $200 million needed to match the Gates Foundation grants. The money is needed to help close a funding gap that could undermine two decades of progress.

To learn more on Rotary's efforts to eradicate polio and the "Kick Polio out of Africa" awareness campaign visit www.rotary.org. or http://kickpoliooutofafrica.wordpress.com
For video and still photos go to: www.thenewsmarket.com/rotaryinternational

For more information contact Sandra Prufer at: +1-847-866-3208 sandra.prufer@rotary.org
To learn more on Rotary's efforts to eradicate polio, visit www.rotary.org.