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?
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.