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10 December 2020

Harnessing the power of song to spread life-saving health messages

Thursday 10 December • Viewing time: 1 minute

Mothers have sung lullabies to their babies for thousands of years. We’ve found a new way to use this age-old tradition.

In 2019, President Edgar Lungu declared the scale of maternal and prenatal deaths in Zambia a public health emergency. There, 10 to 15 pregnant women die every week due to preventable causes.

My research is based around the application of frugal design thinking to real-world challenges. In this instance, we wanted to spread important health information to young women in Zambia to support their transition into motherhood. But how best to do it?

Dr Jim Reid from The University of Huddersfield and I explored a number of ideas — from the state-funded Finnish-style ‘baby boxes’, to printing pictorial healthcare messages onto a traditional wax-cotton chitenge worn by African women.

While exploring the chitenge concept with St John volunteers at Matero clinic in Lusaka, we discovered the cost of printing an information leaflet for expectant mothers was a financial pressure. I realised that a zero-cost solution was needed. 

I recollected a symposium presentation delivered at the 2013 WHO African Partnerships for Patient Safety mirrored this challenge — where Malawian surgeons creatively sung a surgical checklist in theatre as access to paper was in short supply. Could this novel approach be used to communicate critical maternal health messages to mothers, while simultaneously tapping into the cultural tradition of singing lullabies?

Life-Saving Lullabies

With funding support from the Global Challenges Research Fund, the Life-Saving Lullabies team set out to use the power of song to keep babies safe and improve the caring practices of young Zambian mothers. 

Working remotely, we supported and empowered St John Zambia volunteers in Chunga and Kayosha to compose lullabies based on local needs. So far, over 16 songs have been produced that help young women learn about danger signs during pregnancy, communicate the importance of family planning and breastfeeding, and provide comfort to mothers and partners who have lost a baby.

The volunteers then perform the memorable songs in the community and at maternity clinics as part of St John’s outreach work. 

As this approach is based on a tradition embedded in Zambian culture, it was accepted by the local communities. This was really important for getting people to listen to the songs and absorb their messages.

The coronavirus songs

We saw that the lullabies could have applications outside pregnancy, maternal care and family planning too.

With the onset of Covid-19 — and before any official cases were confirmed in Zambia — we reacted by helping volunteers share local knowledge about the dangers of the disease. 

This involved creating four virus songs to spread awareness of safety measures like hand-washing and social distancing. So far, it’s been an effective way to quickly share urgent health advice with a large number of people. 

During the pandemic, we also discovered we could work remotely with our partners on the ground. This low carbon footprint is a real positive and further highlights the sustainability of the scheme. What’s more, it can all be done at zero cost.

Scaling up

The Life-Saving Lullabies project is gaining international recognition and received a ‘best in class’ social impact award from Good Design Australia.

Following its success to date in Zambia, with the support of St John International we’ve applied for GCRF follow-on-funding to scale the project with St John establishments in Malawi, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

There, we hope that this novel, sustainable and zero-cost intervention will raise greater awareness of maternal health issues and support the wellbeing of young women.

  • David Swann is a Professor in Design, and Research Lead for the Department of Art and Design. He is a double graduate of the Royal College of Art (MDes Industrial Design-1991 and PhD- 2011). His design research is grounded in global healthcare challenges. 

More about the Global Challenges Research Fund

The Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) is funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). It links UK researchers with local organisations for collaborative, community-based projects — making a difference to people's lives in areas of poverty, danger and disadvantage. 

Research themes

About this project

Explore the people and organisations behind this research, and find related publications by the research team.

Global Challenges Research Fund

The GCRF addresses urgent issues in the developing world through cutting-edge research. Through the fund, we're applying our knowledge across the globe and making a positive impact on people's lives.

Related courses

Our teaching is informed by research. Browse undergraduate and postgraduate courses with links to this research project, topic or team.

Get in touch

Find key contacts for enquiries about funding, partnerships, collaborations and doctoral degrees.

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