Life saving lullabies - the power of song to spread health and safety messages
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Life saving lullabies – the power of song to spread health and safety messages

by Freya Lucas

May 07, 2020

A group of researchers from the University of Huddersfield are tapping into a novel form of communication to spread vital health and safety information amongst African women, using the power of songs performed in local language as a zero-cost way to create awareness of key issues including COVID-19.


The project – titled Life-Saving Lullabies – has earned major funding from Britain’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). It is focussed on Zambia, but when it has proved its value it could spread to other African countries and then around the world. 


The work of the project may be of interest to those in the education and care sector, as it reinforces the importance of diversifying modes and messages to suit the needs of local communities, as well as demonstrating the value of putting messages to music to reinforce core concepts. 


Volunteers are encouraged to create lively lullabies in local languages, which are then performed to women who visit maternity clinics.


The songs are a memorable way to convey important information about birth and childcare, but the onset of coronavirus now means that songs are now being created that relay the importance of precautions, such as social distancing.

The Life Saving Lullabies project has been developed by the educationalist Dr James Reid and the historian Professor Barry Doyle at the University of Huddersfield using £129,795 (AUD$ 218948) of AHRC funding to collaborate with design expert Professor David Swann,in conjunction with St John Zambia, a leading healthcare provider in the African country.


Dr Reid said that he and his colleagues had been “overwhelmed” by how volunteers and maternity clinics in Zambia responded to the project. Life Saving Lullabies was the result of what Dr Reid described as a “eureka moment” when he and his colleagues visited Zambia for a workshop session during 2019.


Originally, their aim was to investigate whether the Finnish baby box – a maternity package given to all new parents in Finland, contributing to very low levels of infant mortality – could have a role in Sub-Saharan Africa.


But it was quickly realised that the cost of the baby boxes meant that they would not be a solution in Zambian villages, as well as being culturally inappropriate. 


“We showed women photos and the first thing they saw was a baby-sized coffin. There is a very high rate of infant mortality, especially in rural areas of Zambia,” Dr Reid said. 


Following on from these initial discussions, the researchers investigated the possibility of incorporating verbal and pictorial healthcare messages into the chitenge, the colourful wrap that is worn by huge numbers of African women.


Although chitenge were ubiquitous in African culture, not everybody could afford them, leading the team to search for a communication method that was “as close as possible to zero cost” in order for the project to gain traction and be sustainable.


“We were at St John Zambia for a workshop talking to women volunteers about their own experience of motherhood. Then they started to sing and we looked at each other and went ‘that’s it’!” he said. 


Having observed the Lullaby Project at New York’s Carnegie Hall, which uses especially composed songs to develop attachment and aid child development, Dr Reid knew the potential of lullabies to inspire and transform. 


Now, the project is underway and volunteers in Zambian clinics, after being told what information the Ministry of Health needs to impart, have been creating and performing songs. They can be seen and heard online and researchers will gauge their impact.


The project is funded by the AHRC until March 2021, with the possibility of extension. At the conclusion of the project a symposium will be held in Zambia, with the possibility of spreading the scheme to other African countries. 


Beyond that, Dr Reid said, the ambition is to bring the idea to “the global north”.


“This would bring the baby box discussion full circle,” he continued. “The boxes are really expensive. They are a really good idea in a particular context in places like Finland and perhaps the UK that can afford them. But there are other ways of doing things and singing might be a way of achieving a lot more for no cost.”


Carnegie Hall in New York has now invited the Life Saving Lullabies team to take part in a two-day workshop in June as part of their review of its own Lullaby Project. 


They have also received an invitation from Spanish organisation Grandes Oyentes to take part in an online discussion on the impact of music and creative engagement on women’s health as they plan to introduce a lullaby project in Spain.


To read more about the project, please see here

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