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Health

This group of Congolese polio survivors became world famous musicians

Flickr - Thorsten Krienke

Papa Ricky is known as the “tough guy” in his neighborhood in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He sleeps in the streets on cardboard, sometimes works as a tailor or mechanic, and sells alcohol and cigarettes from a tricycle he uses for mobility.

He is also the co-founder and lead vocalist of Staff Benda Bilili, a musical group that rose from the obscurity of Congolese airwaves to the thrill of playing at international festivals. The group was even the subject of a documentary that premiered at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, where the band played at the Directors’ Fortnight opening party.

Four of the core members of the band, including Ricky, live with polio. Rejected by other bands because of their status as handicapés, Ricky and the rest of the band connected through their shared condition and love of music.

Congo musicians-Flickr-Mario Pires-Body1.jpgImage: Flickr - Mario Pires

True to their mission -- Staff Benda Bilili roughly translates to “look beyond appearances” in Lingala -- the group seeks to reflect the realities of street life in Kinshasa through their music.

Kinshasa is the third largest urban area in Africa and, until 1997, was under the dictatorial leadership of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu. Since the Second Congo War ended in 2003, the city has tried to recover from the legacy of the conflict, including high levels of crime and large numbers of street children, many of whom are former child soldiers or orphans of conflict.

Staff Benda Bilili’s songs often provide social commentary regarding these and other key issues affecting the people of Kinshasa. In 2006, they recorded a song called “Allons Voter,” which is said to be responsible for a 70% increase in voter turnout during that year’s election. Drawing from their shared personal backgrounds, the group recorded a song called “Polio” in 2009, which encourages families to get their children vaccinated against the disease.

Polio vaccinations have been effective in The DRC, which has been polio-free since 2011.

Congo musicians-Flickr-Cactus Muziekcentrum-Body2.jpgImage: Flickr - Cactus Muziekcentrum

Though the entire continent of Africa has been declared polio-free -- Pakistan and Afghanistan remain the only polio-endemic countries in the world -- continued efforts must be made to ensure that it remains that way. And while people like those behind Staff Benda Bilili provide hope and inspiration for those affected by polio and other diseases, they are also a reminder of the lasting effects of a lack of access to proper and widespread vaccination programs.

1 in 5 children in Africa still lack access to basic lifesaving vaccines, and while immunization rates in most countries have improved, the poorest children remain behind. As nations in Africa continue growing, these children are at risk of being entirely forgotten. Therefore we, as global citizens, must call on the leaders of African nations to close the immunization gap by making vaccination and immunization programs a priority within their borders and across the continent.

On this World Immunization Week, take action to ensure that the most vulnerable children in Africa are able to be immunized against preventable diseases so that they can have a fair chance at a healthy life.