APRIL 18, 2008
Feliciano Dos Santos Awarded Goldman Prize
Mozambican musician awarded prestigious environmental award for clean water activism.by Tom Pryor
Mozambican musician Feliciano Dos Santos was awarded the 2008 Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco on Monday, April 14th, for his work in using music educate and organize rural Mozambican communities around sanitation, clean water and HIV/AIDS. The prize, first established in 1990, is awarded annually to grassroots environmental activists from six continents.
Dos Santos's use of culturally appropriate messaging to communicate the links between sanitation, sustainability and breaking the cycle of poverty made him this year's African honoree. Past winners include Nigerian novelist Ken Saro-Wiwa and Kenyan activist and Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathi.
Dos Santos was born in the country's remote, northwestern Niassa province, one of the poorest and regions of the country - a region as large as New England, yet with only 170 kilometers of paved road. Growing up there, Dos Santos was stricken with polio because of a lack of clean water and proper sanitation. Today he leads the band Massukos - one of the most popular groups in Mozambique - and manages to make songs about sanitation like "Wash Hands" into irresistible sing-alongs.
Dos Santos is also the co-founder and director of the NGO called Estamos, which works directly with villagers in Niassa to provide community sanitation, promote sustainable agriculture, lead reforestation projects and support HIV/AIDS initiatives. Esatamos sees sanitation as the cornerstone of other development work, and has worked to provide low cost, sustainable composting toilets to villages in the region, and lead participatory workshops to educate local villages on their sanitation options. Since beginning it's work in Niassa in 2000, Estamos has helped thousands of people in hundreds of villages gain access to clean water and sustainable sanitation.
Nat Geo Music had the opportunity to catch up with this remarkable activist at our headquarters in Washington, DC, and ask him a few questions?
Nat Geo Music: How long have you been playing music? How did you begin playing music?
Feliciano Dos Santos: I have been playing music for 20 years. I just learned with a friend. . .rhythm guitar. Massukos is named after a fruit tree in Mozambique and was formed in 1994 after the war.
What other artists influenced you?
Growing up I listened to a lot of music Otis Redding, Deep Purple, Bob Marley, African music like Osibisa, music from Tanzania, in Mozambique we had the group RM (Radio Mozambique) - they were the only group around because of the (civil) war. Later I listened to Bob Marley, Salif Keita, etc?
Some sounds just come to me from my head....
What was it like growing up in Mozambique?
The war was my whole life, I was born into the war (War of Liberation 1964 to 1975) and then when that war ended one year later the next war began (Mozambican Civil War 1975 - 1992). The challenge with war is that you don't have access to materials, for example materials to build a house and you're afraid to move around for fear of getting shot. You don't have hope, you don't think about the future, you just live for the present because you can't plan your life. For example people would say "Why should I go to school, I don't know what's going to happen to me tomorrow." People were trying to find hope.
I also had a lot of personal challenges because I had polio and this created physical challenges as well as other challenges including people treating me differently; sometimes they thought that because I was different physically I also was inferior mentally. This was a challenge. This was very hard.
How did you find hope?
Well even during the war you could always have love and this was my hope. When the war finished I found a new hope, I decided to play music, to start a new life.
Tell me about Niassa...
We have four tribes Yaos, Macuas, Nyanjas, Ngonis and I sing in Yao and Nyanjas and sometimes Portuguese but the band sings in languages from other provinces. I also write songs that my bandmates sing in their languages
How did Massukos become involved in spreading the word about water and sanitation? How was Estamos formed?
Well an NGO from America was working with the refugees during the war and they heard about Massukos and so they came to us and said you have some good ideas. Some of Massukos band members then decided to get some training in water and sanitation. Ned Breslin (WaterAid) and his wife were a tremendous help.
It was at this time that I learned that water sanitation is linked with polio. Simple basic things could have changed my life, like clean water and sanitation. I could have had a better life and for that matter many other children - just if they would have had access to basic clean water and sanitation.
In these courses I also learned that a lot of the problems with cholera are due to poor water and the sanitation. Even nowadays people don't realize the link between poor water and cholera - which is a severe problem in Mozambique. Estamos and Massukos are trying to change this. For example the Massukos Song "Washing Hands" uses local melodies and village expressions to praise clean water and the new practice of ecological sanitation.
Has your music always had a message?
We don't do music without a message - it's a way to raise awareness about social issues. This is a big discussion in Mozambique about whether to create music with a message. You have to use your talent to do good things.
A lot of traditional African music is used to teach information. When someone in Africa dies you hear the family/village sing certain melodies and you know that someone died - you don't need to ask, you can just hear it in the music.
Because we are taking things from the community -in every song we use the rhythm of some traditional music - for the people it's 'ah this is our song' and it speaks to them, it's in sync with their culture. We weave in melodies from the community to the songs and then introduce a new idea like clean water systems.
For example, the Song Kumalembe, the lyrics and the beat come from the community. There are traditional wisdoms from each community that we weave into the songs.
How did it feel to receive the Goldman Prize?
I am proud that I can be a role model? that I can show others that being born in a poor place is not something wrong. No one is asked to be born into a poor place, it is something that happens to you. But now, it shows others that even if you are born into a poor place, it is possible for you to make a difference.
Also I still live in Niassa, Mozambique where I was born. Some people when they do well, they move away, they forget their community. I am still with my community in Niassa, Mozambique - it is where I am raising my family.
Do you have a message for people in The United States and the West?
My message is that everybody has a responsibility to do at least one thing in their life to benefit the world. For example, if I don't look after sanitation and my health, I can spread cholera, so you have to think about how your actions, even your simple actions, will impact others. You need to think about how your actions impact your community and the greater world.
Also people seem to focus on the big issues. You need to first focus on basic human rights. When we talk about development in Africa we think about big cities, big projects. Even with the big cities, if you don't have access to basic human rights like clean water and sanitation, it doesn't matter that you're now living in a big city.
Clean water and sanitation are basic human rights. Yet the United Nations places these things way down on the list of priorities. Yes, the United Nations talks about them, but you can't just talk about these things, you must take action. Talk is just a drop in the ocean.
The U.S. can send a lot of medicine to Africa like the drug for HIV, but what kind of water will be people be using to take these drugs? Is it clean or dirty? You can get an opportunistic disease from poor water and sanitation so even if you have the drugs they might not help you. You must give people their basic human rights first and then you can grow from there.
Special Thanks to Heidi Quante for Additional Reporting