Appeal: The Elton John of Mozambique believes in the power of water

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The Independent Online

His legions of fans call him Mozambique's Elton John.But while the British pop idol uses his clout in the global entertainment industry to raise funds for his Aids foundation, Feliciano dos Santos is campaigning in his native land for the basic necessities of life.

Dos Santos, a musician disabled by polio who learned to play a makeshift banjo guitar in an African slum, wants to help transform his community so nobody else suffers what he went through. He endured a gruelling childhood with no clean water and proper sanitation. "Music has the power to change people," he says in his office in Lichinga, the capital of Niassa province battered by nearly two decades of civil war. "We use our music to raise awareness about sanitation, water, hygiene and HIV Aids. We believe people take our message seriously. Because of our lyrics, we have been able to influence their behaviour. At least, that's what they tell us."

African musicians normally struggle for success on a continent where scarce resources are better spent on bread and butter than buying CDs. But when Dos Santos performs, fans walk miles to catch a glimpse of him and his group, Massukos. The latest offering of Dos Santos and his band, Kuimba kwa Massuko, won a gold disc for selling 30,000 copies in a few days, and has now notched up record sales in his homeland with 80,000 copies sold. The album has captivated international audiences, and won the international prize for water at the Cannes Water Symposium, in France last year, in recognition of its lyrics.

One song called "Wash your hands" underscores the importance of clean water, good sanitation and hygiene as central to economic development.

"If you haven't soap to wash your hands [after relieving yourself] you can use ash," say the lyrics. "Don't shake another's hand with your dirty one."

In another song with a rhumba rhythm, Dos Santos says: "If you have clean water and proper sanitation, you can live long. Even if you get Aids, you can still cheat death and survive. Sanitation is good and can change your life."

Dos Santos says the message he wants to hammer home through his music is that better hygiene through proper sanitation and water means better health for all in the community. This means stronger people who can work to grow crops for the community which can be sold to pay for medicines and for school fees and uniforms.

It means a healthy community which can fetch bamboo and grass from the bush to build houses. "It means much more than a poor, unhealthy and weak community suffering from malnutrition can achieve," he says.

To complement the music, Dos Santos and two members of Massukos are part of Estamos, a non-governmental organisation and partner for the charity WaterAid, which builds pit latrines for Niassa's poor, and protected wells for clean water.

The community decides on the design of its pit latrines and Estamos helps with contributions to install them. "But we also have to change the minds and behaviour of people," Dos Santos says. Installing a protected well for people who for some traditional reason prefer to drink from a river, or a "sacred" but dirty swamp will not help. They have to show those people there is a direct link between drinking dirty water and certain diseases.

With a budget of $600,000 (£311,000) a year, Estamos has helped build more than 500 pit latrines and 250 protected wells in Niassa since 2000, to try to provide proper sanitation and clean water for almost a million people in the province. But the struggle is a long way from being won. Although Mozambique is a largely fertile country six times bigger than the UK, it remains among the poorest countries in the world.

Most African musicians who have done well, tend to head for the comfort of European capitals where the music industry is well developed. Brussels and Paris are even nicknamed the "capitals of Kwasa Kwasa" in African music circles because of the many central and West African musicians who have migrated there to spread the popular African Kwasa Kwasa beat.

But Dos Santos, 40, wants to spend his life in Niassa, the poorest of the 11 provinces of Mozambique, where the average life expectancy is only 39 years. Through his music, Dos Santos is also drawing the attention of central government to the worst poverty-stricken areas. He believes the government can do much more, in building roads and providing water and sanitation, although most of its budget is donor-funded. In one song, Dos Santos laments the attitude of politicians who forget the poverty of their home areas after they reach the relative comfort of the capital, Maputo. He implores them to use their positions to get more resources for the poorest of the poor in the rural provinces.

Although his lyrics have irked a few politicians, they have generally been well received. The outgoing Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano gave $30,000 of his personal money to help Massukos buy better equipment.

Dos Santos says the key to Estamos's success in helping communities is its participatory approach. "We prefer to involve communities in identifying problems and getting the solutions," he says. "We look at what the community itself is able to do and the resources it has to overcome its problems."

With local partners in the forefront, WaterAid helps poor communities foster home-grown solutions to their unique problems, WaterAid's Ned Breslin says. Such solutions have better chances of success, he adds.

Dos Santos says: "I have a physical disability but I have to show I have the mental strength to achieve what I believe in."

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