Last weekend I had the pleasure of watching Benda Bilili, a music documentary which was released in the UK earlier this year. The documentary is the remarkable story of the band Staff Benda Bilili whose members are a mix of paraplegics and street children from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who practice in the Kinshasa city zoo. The story follows the band from their early encounters with the documentary makers on the streets of Kinshasa, to the recording of their album (Très Très Fort) and on to a European tour. It is a truly astonishing story.
The core members of the band share the same distinctive disability and get around on crutches and modified tricycles. Papa Ricky, the charismatic leader of the band, explains its origins in a lament which he sings at a shelter for the physically handicapped. “I was born a strong man, but polio got me … I’ve become the man with canes, these damn crutches, what a mess.”
Thankfully since 1988, when the world health assembly resolved to eradicate polio, there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of polio cases thanks to immunization campaigns. In 2010 there were fewer than 900 polio cases globally and it is now considered endemic in only four countries (Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan). However, despite the progress made it is proving difficult to eliminate polio completely. A recent Independent Monitoring Board report concluded that polio eradication can be achieved in the near-term, but that “this will not happen if things continue as they are”. Particularly worrying is a $590 million funding gap.
The film also illustrates the success of vaccination campaigns. Until a recent outbreak, polio has been absent in the DRC for a decade and most of the children in the film are thankfully free of polio-related disability. However, the most recent outbreak of polio underlines the need for a final push to consign polio to the history books, alongside small pox and rinderpest.
As for Staff Benda Bilili, their music is not to be overlooked and, in my opinion is, ‘world music’ of the best kind. It has a backbone of funky soul that is hard not to dance to and is a fitting soundtrack to a vivid portrayal of Kinshasa street life.
In light of the struggle to finally eradicate polio, I’ll let Papa Ricky have the last word:
Go to vaccination centres
To vaccinate their babies
To eradicate buka buka”