As Kaltoum Omer hits the high notes, the crowd erupts. Hundreds of men, women, and children join in the song's chorus—clapping, cheering and singing along to the well-known lyrics. An encore and an ovation later, Omer sits down to rest her voice and another singer takes the megaphone to keep the crowd entertained. The concert has been going more than an hour in the burning Darfur heat, but the crowd's enthusiasm shows no sign of letting up.
A crowded camp sheltering 25,000 people from the horrific violence of Darfur's five-year-old conflict may seem an unlikely venue, but this is no ordinary pop concert. The tunes are traditional, but the lyrics talk of hygiene and explain how people can avoid fatal diseases. Kaltoum is one of a dozen women who have teamed up with Oxfam to hold weekly music festivals in Shangil Tobai in North Darfur. The concerts bring an afternoon of fun to people who have had fled attacks on nearby villages—but they educate as well as entertain.
"Singing is a part of our lives and we like to sing whenever and wherever we can," says Omer, sipping a small glass of extra sweet tea after the concert ends. "We enjoy it, and the people listening enjoy it, but most importantly our singing now helps change people's lives for the better."
"We take Oxfam's advice about good health and sanitation and put it to our own music," she continues. "You can see the songs changing listeners' behavior. The camp is much cleaner now and there are far fewer cases of malaria and diarrhea. Children wash their hands now without being told. When you tell young children to wash they don't always do as they're asked—but when we sing it to them they join in and have fun, and they really pay attention."
The songs change over time to reflect the needs in the camp, adds Zaharisa, another member of the group. "We used to sing about the need to clean the latrines regularly, but now people are doing this well so we no longer have to sing about it. At the moment my favourite song tells people how to safely and hygienically dispose of waste and get rid of rubbish."
Organizing the concerts
Zainab Basher, an Oxfam health promoter in Shangil Tobai, helps the women organize the concerts. She says the impact has been enormous.
"We hear women and children singing the songs at home and work, and the communities keep asking us when the next performance will be," says Basher. "Now the women perform at weddings and religious festivals, as well as the weekly concerts. Each community has its favorite singers, and keeping latrines and water points clean has become a source of pride. Everyone wants to keep their area of the camp the cleanest. Participation in regular clean-up campaigns has increased greatly."
As the conflict has dragged on five long years, Basher says she and the Oxfam team have had to adapt their work. "We held committee meetings, we visited people's homes, and we trained individuals to become community health mobilizers, but the longer people are here in the camp, the more these methods become routine and ineffective. We needed something new and exciting, so we approached the women singers and they were very keen to help."
The concerts are held in different areas of the camp each week, attracting an audience of hundreds each time.
"We want as many people to hear the songs as possible," says Omer. "Oxfam gives us megaphones for the concerts, to make them louder. The next step is to get cassette recorders to tape the concerts, which we can hand out as gifts to neighbours and relatives so people can listen to the messages at home. Not everyone can sing but we still want to involve them somehow. Some of the women who can't sing are good at playing drums, while others help us write the lyrics."
Faster and faster
All over the world, children like to imitate their favourite pop stars. Darfur is no different, and Kaltoum and the women have inspired a new generation of singers who meet every week at the Oxfam health centers in the camp. One popular chorus goes:
"Let us go to school to read,
Let us learn to be healthy,
Let us clean ourselves,
All children, let us do this."
Manahir, a 15-year-old girl from the camp, leads a group of children aged 5 to 16. Some sing, some bang on small drums, and others just clap and cheer. A chant of "clean the jerry can, clean the latrine" gradually gets faster and the drums louder, until the children lose their breath and burst into applause.
"We have great fun, and we learn at the same time," says Manahir. "My friends and I come to the center every day from all over the camp."
Nearby, as the women's concert reaches its finale, another singer named Mahasa takes the megaphone and leads a chorus in praise of Basher and the Oxfam team's recent distribution of blankets and jerry cans for carrying water.
"We thank the aid agencies and the people around the world who send us these things when we have nothing," she says. "If they didn't help us we wouldn't be able to stay here in the camp. We'd have to go home and be attacked all over again."