Feliciano dos Santos: hero of the grass roots

His songs about life in a Mozambique ghetto have won him global acclaim and a prestigious environmental award

In a world of charity records and pop superstars attempting to connect with the "grass roots", it can be good to see the grass roots sing back. Bob Geldof might not like poverty in Africa, but those in Africa don't like it much either – so it's pleasing to see one of the continent's residents find his voice in spectacular style.

Hailing from Mozambique, singer-songwriter Feliciano dos Santos, 43, has climbed from the ghetto to world recognition. Disabled by polio, he learned to strum a banjo in a slum, playing the rhythms of Niassa, his home province in northern Mozambique. Using lyrics which campaign for better sanitation in the developing world, he is now a well-known star across the globe.

He has performed everywhere from Brixton's Ritzy to the British Museum, entertained 100,000 for Make Poverty History, and even hooked up with Geldof and Gordon Brown along the way. On Monday, his work for charity finally won the recognition it deserved, as he picked up the Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco.

The Goldman is essentially an "environmental Nobel Prize", named after the US philanthropist Richard Goldman, who in 1990 came up with the idea to honour "grass-roots environmental heroes" from six regions around the world (Santos won the trophy for Africa).

Winners are selected for putting themselves at great personal risk, often after embarking upon significant effort to protect the natural environment. The $150,000 (£75,000) prize pot is the world's largest for grass-roots environmentalists.

Speaking from a hotel room shortly before picking up the gong, Santos describes in halting English – civil is pronounced "sie-fill"; "cholera", "the choleras" – how his world has just been unexpectedly inverted.

When he first heard the good news about the Goldman award, he thought someone was playing an elaborate practical joke.

"I was in my house with my family and someone called me and they said, 'You have won a prize'," he explains. "They said, 'Someone you know will call you'. When that happened, I thought someone was doing my friend's voice and I called his wife. She told me that it was true. I started crying."

Dos Santos is almost maddeningly modest. But his accomplishments have defied all the odds. Inspiration for his music was initially fired up when he was a youngster in Niassa, where most of the one million inhabitants endure a tough, small-village existence. Lack of clean water and sanitation led to Santos contracting polio (one of his legs is five inches shorter than the other) and he was galvanised into proving that less physically-able people can lead successful lives.

"People have these preconceptions that people with physical problems are also mentally disabled. But we are just different," he says. "I didn't just want to sit around and face my problems. I'm not a good, good musician. But people with my problems are often ashamed to perform in front of people, and I thought that it would be good to try."

Santos formed his band, Massukos, in 1992, when it was not so certain that his song writing style would go global. His lyrics trod, and still tread, a literal path through the somewhat artistically arid climate of "sanitation". But, despite crooning lines such as "Mothers, listen to me/grandmothers, listen to me, she doesn't listen to me/the slab [latrine] is so good/the slab is easy to clean", he has won a platoon of fans – his country's president among them.

He founded his own NGO, Estamos, a partner of WaterAid, in 1996, first focusing on water-borne diseases, now aiming the spotlight on water problems for those afflicted with HIV and Aids.

"We are trying to bring water close to them because sometimes they can't walk so much," he says. "Even if they have access to medication, what kind of water will they use to take this medication? Without basic human rights, they cannot do anything." In Mozambique, half the population continues to struggle with below-average hygiene levels.

Santos is not brimming with praise for those Western pop stars with loud, campaigning voices, though. "For me, the concern is how to put it into practice," he adds. "You know, I go to the communities. I know big musicians can do that, because they have prosperous lives: they are famous, they have bodyguards. But when they raise the money, they need to follow it. They need to see where it is being used. That is the most important thing."

With his prize money, he intends to create "a better life for his family" and to translate a body of research on environmental health into Portuguese. He also believes that he will be able to "talk to people more. I will use my voice to talk for people without a voice."

Good causes: Goldman Prize winners

The Goldman Prize honours grass-roots environmentalists. Founded by the US philanthropist Richard Goldman, it has recognised a selection of campaigners from across the world for 18 years. Recent winners are listed below.

* 2007

Ireland's Willie Corduff, from the farming community of Rossport (known as one of the Rossport Five), was given an award after being jailed for protesting against an onshore gas pipeline. Other awards were given to Hammerskjoeld Simwinga, for his work against poachers in Zambia, and Orri Vigfusson of Iceland, for preserving his country's salmon stocks.

* 2006

Olya Melen, from the Ukraine, was honoured for halting a canal which would have cut through one of the world's most valuable wetlands. China's Yu Xiaogang was given the accolade after imagining up a "groundbreaking watershed management programme" to tame the country's powerful river system, and American Craig E Williams was honoured for successfully convincing the Pentagon to stop plans to incinerate chemical weapon stockpiles.

* 2005

The Haitian Chavannes Jean-Baptiste won for founding the Peasant Movement of Papaye, which teaches people sustainable agriculture. Stephanie Danielle Roth from Romania spoke out against the largest open-cast gold mine in his homeland, and Father Jose Andres Tamayo, of Honduras directed a coalition of subsistence farmers who defended their lands against uncontrolled commercial logging.

* 2004

India's Champa Devi Shukla and Rashida Bee were awarded after seeking justice for the victims of a 1984 gas leak in Bhopal city, to which 20,000 deaths have been attributed. Colombia's Libia Grueso picked up the gong for protecting rainforest, while Georgia's Manana Kochladze was recognised for his work in investigating the political process surrounding an huge oil pipeline's construction.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own