Far away from the modern world, in northern Mozambique, lies a vast expanse of land known as Niassa. It seems to stretch on forever under a broad African sky. Only one dirt road links it to the rest of the country. “It is a place the world forgot,” says FRONTLINE/World reporter Marjorie McAfee.
But in a poor, remote village, she finds a crowd gathering, as a band tunes their electric guitars. People have come from all around to see and hear Feliciano Dos Santos, one of Mozambique’s biggest Afro-pop stars.
When his band, Massukos, begins to play a lilting groove, kids start to dance, and a handsome, smiling Santos sings some unexpected lyrics in the local tribal language:
Let’s wash our hands Let’s wash our hands For the children to stay healthy For the uncles to stay healthy For the mothers to stay healthy We build latrines
Most rock stars don’t sing about hygiene and sanitation. Then again, not many rock stars live and work in Niassa, one of the poorest places on earth, where people survive on subsistence farming and lack amenities such as indoor plumbing. Born and raised in Niassa, Santos writes and performs songs that literally save lives. His hit, “Wash Your Hands,” is part of a public health campaign organized by his non-profit group, Estamos, that promotes the installation of pumps to provide clean drinking water and “EcoSan” toilets to improve sanitation.
Santos shows McAfee that the brick-lined pits of the ecological latrines prevent water contamination. People are also taught to toss ash from cooking fires onto the waste and cover it with a lid to prevent odor and keep away disease-bearing flies.
But then, there’s another, unexpected benefit. After composting for six months or so, the waste and ash create a natural fertilizer, which can be used by farmers to increase the amount of corn and other crops they grow. Some farmers were perhaps understandably skeptical or squeamish, but as one says, when he saw the size of his neighbor’s cabbages, he requested an EcoSan toilet of his own. Santos’ group Estamos has so far installed over 300 of these low-cost latrines — helping to build a sustainable sanitation system in an area that never had one.
Santos has a personal motivation for his work: He fell victim to polio as a child from contaminated water and lost part of his leg. “I don’t want to see children growing up with the same problem I have,” Santos tells McAfee. As a young boy, Santos made his first artificial leg out of cardboard and rubber bands. He is a survivor, not prone to giving up. But he still bears the emotional scars of the discrimination he faced because of his disability. He recalls the story of how his wife’s uncle rejected him, saying he was unfit to provide for a family. “He said this in front of my mother,” says Santos, as he is overcome with emotion and breaks off the interview. Santos has always used his music for healing – for himself and for his country, which was consumed by a long, catastrophic civil war after Mozambique won a war of independence from Portuguese colonial rule in 1975. When the fighting finally stopped in the mid-1990s, Santos started his band, Massukos, naming it after a local, nourishing fruit.
“I was inspired to name the band after that fruit,” explains Santos, “because we were just finishing a war, and after a war, many people need to fight spiritual hunger. So our music is intended to fight spiritual hunger.”
His message resonates in a place like Niassa, where life is tragically short: Life expectancy is only 42 years. One reason for that is AIDS. One in six people in this region are infected with HIV. So Santos’s NGO, Estamos, also does AIDS education and prevention, sponsoring plays in which villagers re-enact the traumas of infidelity and infection.
Back in the Estamos office in the town of Lichinga, McAfee sees a dynamic group that now employs over 40 people and has an operating budget of nearly a million dollars, most of it coming from Western aid organizations. Santos has become an icon for clean water and sanitation throughout the country, says Simao, his friend, co-worker and fellow band member. And others outside Mozambique are also recognizing his accomplishments. Santos recently received a $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco for his work.
His band, Massukos, has also caught on with critics and world music fans in Europe, and with his growing fame, Santos could have opted to leave Niassa for a more lucrative career abroad, but he is committed to working for his homeland.
In a song dedicated to Niassa, Santos and Simao deliver a simple, heartfelt message: Life is short, don’t forget where you come from, and try to do some good while you are here.
Other people say, I’ll never go back to Niassa. Why go back? But here we are.
Santos is Niassa. Simao is Niassa. Estamos is Niassa. Massukos is Niassa.