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June 2, 2009

Rhythm of Life Blends Music, Art and Health

By Uttara Bharath Kumar

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For Lillian Mphuka, an officer with the Health Promotion Unit of the Ministry of Health in Zambia, the May 16 Rhythm of Life festival--Zambia’s first combined music and arts festival and health fair--was a rousing success.

“I personally felt proud to be a Zambian on Saturday. The feedback received so far has been overwhelming,” she said. “Making this an annual event would be a very good strategy for informing our Lusaka community and beyond—as seen on national TV broadcast—through music and art of key health issues.”

The day-long Rhythm of Life celebration was organized by Zambia’s Ministry of Health and implemented by Health Communication Partnership (HCP) Zambia with support from the American people. It was designed to bring free preventive health care information, counseling, testing and referral services on a range of health issues to Zambians in both traditional and entertaining ways such as music, drama, film, dance and art. HCP worked with a range of partners in the field of public health, the National Arts Council, as well as a variety of performing artists to make this possible. Legendary Zimbabwean musician Oliver Mtukudzi headlined the day’s concert alongside popular Zambian artists such as Mampi, Danny, Sakala Brothers, Angela Nyirenda, Maiko Zulu and Mozegater.

Over 12,000 people who were drawn in by the musical superstars could not help but become part of the day’s true theme: preventive health care. There was wealth of information on preventing HIV and malaria, voluntary counseling and testing services, as well as male circumcision counseling and referral, blood pressure and weight checks, and health quizzes with prizes. The event was free as to not exclude anyone from accessing the services or enjoying the day.

Based on information received from partner organizations, over 250 women accessed family planning, maternal and reproductive health counseling and services, more than 450 accessed HIV counseling and testing services, and 400 people received counseling or referrals for male circumcision. In the medical tent run by the University of Zambia medical students, over 300 people accessed the blood pressure, weight, blood sugar and health counseling services, 185 had their eyes tested and 38 donated blood. Partners working on malaria tested 310 people using rapid diagnostic tests. Five people tested positive for malaria and were referred for treatment. Many thousands more took home information materials on a variety of topics.

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Performances ranged from the a cappella melodies of B Fas and Kabulonga High School Choir to the colorful and mesmerizing drumming and dancing of the Amaombe and Zuba Ni Moto cultural ensembles and the meaningful and entertaining drama performance by Africa Directions; from the popular, feet-stomping, vernacular hits of John Chiti, Mozegater, Hamoba, Emmie Routes, CQ, Sista D, Mwale Sisters, Brian Chilala, Amayenge and General Ozzy to the gospel-inspired songs of Stan Chipuma, X-ploits and Annointed Power House; to the popular Makewene musical duo, the flashy Sakala Brothers to the dulcet version of the same style rendered by Angela Nyirenda. There was even some great reggae and rap from Maiko Zulu and Cactus Agony that had the crowds roaring their approval. These were all topped by the two performances by Oliver Mtukudzi and the Black Spirits with their inimitable brand of “Tuku Music.” Every single performance conveyed key health messages on a variety of health issues, including family planning, male circumcision, malaria and HIV. Each performer conveyed health information appropriate to their fan following and delivered in the style that suited them best. The impact was all the more powerful through the synergy created by the artists coming together.

The events of the day, including the speeches and the awards, were skillfully coordinated by the stage manager, Brian Chengala Shakarongo, and the three articulate masters of ceremony—Linzee, Mix Master and Kenny T—who kept the schedule moving with military precision. No opportunity was missed to deliver key health messages. Changeovers were used as opportunities to show HCP’s educational animated short films on malaria and HIV on the LED side screens. Emcees also interacted with the crowd by asking questions related to key health issues and awarding small prizes for correct answers.

The Ambassador of the United States to Zambia, His Excellency Donald E. Booth, and the Deputy Minister of Health, Honorable Mwendoi Akakandelwa, MP, were the guests of honor at Rhythm of Life. After touring the health booths and services on offer, they addressed the gathered crowd of thousands.

“More than a quarter of women 15 to 19 are either mothers or currently pregnant according to the Zambia Demographic and Health Survey of 2007,” said the Deputy Minister of Health. “There is a need to make family planning information and services available to anyone who seeks it, particularly ensuring we have caring and supportive health care providers as well as uninterrupted supply of contraceptive methods even in the most rural areas.”

He also emphasized that more than 85 percent of Zambians (ZDHS 2007) are HIV negative and that more was needed to help them stay that way. He said, “We need to encourage open discussion between parents and children so that the lack of information is not the reason children start having sex early. We need to promote all the tools we have and know of to prevent HIV—abstinence, partner reduction, condoms, male circumcision, prevention of parent to child transmission of HIV, prevention and treatment of STIs, infection prevention through safe blood and sterilized sharps.” He also talked about key preventive behaviors for malaria, child health and safe motherhood. He also underlined the importance of male involvement in health issues: “Gone are the days when health was just a woman’s responsibility,” he said.

According to Ambassador Booth, “Prevention is essential to a healthier Zambia and to a wealthier Zambia. You cannot go on with treatment as your main battle plan. Treatment costs too much, certainly in terms of dollars and kwacha. But other costs are just as severe. It is missing days of work to treat malaria, instead of spending ten minutes installing a mosquito net. It is spending a lifetime on ART instead of 10 seconds putting on a condom. It is losing years of life to breast or skin cancer instead of setting aside five minutes once a month for a self-exam.”

“There’s an old saying,” he said, “that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We’ve made great strides at accumulating those ounces here and there. But if an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, think what we could do with a pound of prevention.”

A presentation on benefits of male circumcision convinced a handful of the gathered male stars to go for the procedure following the workshop. Mozegater, who has a huge following among Zambian youth, said that he could not tell his fans to go for circumcision without undergoing the procedure himself. He got circumcised six days before the concert and used his performance at Rhythm of Life as an opportunity to tell his fans about the benefits of male circumcision as well as his personal experience with the procedure. This testimonial is certain to play an important role in increasing demand for male circumcision services among Zambian youth.

In their workshop evaluation one participant said, “The workshop was an eye opener on health information and a great platform to have artists unite for a common purpose.” Another said, “This workshop is a very important tool to empower artists and encourage them to be ambassadors carrying the health messages. I hope and trust that lives will be impacted out there through us spreading the message of what we have learned.” In the words of another artist, “I have learned much about health issues and I have learned even more about myself.”

Rhythm of Life included a health-themed art exhibit created by renowned artist Mulenga Chafilwa that showcased the work of talented Zambian sculptors and visual artists. An all-day healththemed art competition for children was judged by a panel of prominent Zambian artists. The prizes for this competition were handed out by the guests of honor during the official part of the day. Prizes for a journalist competition organized by HCP, called “Health in the Headlines,” were also given out after the art prizes. Immediately after the prize-giving ceremony, the festival’s theme song, called Rhythm of Life, was performed by all the artists, including Oliver Mtukudzi. Crowds clapped and danced along to the infectious beat and catchy lyrics that also had key messages about health seamlessly included in them.

Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi was invited to participate in the event particularly because of his long-standing reputation in the region as a musical icon and as an ambassador of health. He added to the star-studded feel of the day and increased the appeal and profile of the event. “This is a brilliant idea,” said Mr. Mtukudzi, “We want to try this in Zimbabwe for sure. As artists we are a mirror of the people and it is our duty to elaborate issues that people may not understand.”

The event was covered by Zambian National Broadcasting Corporation and the popular private TV channel MUVI TV. Key speeches as well as a few of the most popular performers and their messages were transmitted live to television sets around the country during prime time. According to the ZDHS 2007 about 35 percent of Zambia’s 11 million people watch television regularly.

Satellite activities centering around the live broadcast took place around the country. Some of these were initiated by HCP offices in 22 hard-to-reach districts.

Angela Nyirenda, the Queen of Makewene music in Zambia, summed up the Rhythm of Life event in the following words, “You have seen a lot of people here. They have rushed to listen to the music, but at the end of the day they go home knowing something. This means somebody out there has been protected.”

HCP Zambia is a five-year project, globally led by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for Communication Programs in partnership with Save the Children (US) and International HIV/AIDS Alliance. This program is funded by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative, and through United States Agency for International Development health funds.

Uttara Bharath Kumar is senior program officer in Zambia for the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center Communication Programs. Faraz Naqvi, Michelle Hunsberger, Judith Robb-McCord, Anne Jennings and Christopher Wurst also contributed to the article.