The CDC advises that typhoid, cholera and up to 88 percent of diarrhea cases could be prevented by better sanitation through practices like washing hands. To save lives, Global Handwashing Day is coordinating events that encourage hand-washing for 20 seconds or more. According to the CDC, that's the amount of time it takes to effectively clean hands through scrubbing with soap, which breaks down germ-carrying oils and rubs them off hands.
Nigeria is one of several countries with an on-the-ground hand-washing initiative. In Nigeria, only 1 in 10 school children wash their hands regularly and effectively — and 1 in 10 children die from illnesses that could be prevented by handwashing. Those statistics concerned Nigerian pop singer Sunny Neji so much that he approached the nonprofit group Concern Universal two years ago to ask how he could help. Along with artist 2Face Idibia, Neji wrote and starred in a music video for an upbeat pop anthem called "Wash Your Hands O!"
We talked with Neji about his sudsy cause. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get involved with Global Handwashing Day?
I was in my village [Ogaja] when I ran into Concern Universal. They were doing some community orientation that taught people about better hygiene. I approached them and asked what I could do to help. A couple of weeks later, they called me and told me about a campaign they were planning to get people in the habit of washing their hands.
Being a musician, I thought it was right up my alley. I said, "OK, we can use music to drive this campaign." People love music, so if I could construct a lovely melody and put in some memorable words, it could stick in people's minds faster.
Why do many people not wash their hands, given that it's relatively inexpensive and effective?
I think it's a habit, and a bad one. Habits are formed over time, and sometimes it's cultural. Sometimes it's a lack of exposure or just ignorance. That's why this campaign is very enlightening. It's teaching people that you need to wash your hands and that you need to do it properly. Not just with water, but with soap too.
Lots of songs are about love, loss or triumph. Hand-washing is a less dramatic topic.
[Laughs]. I get you. If you look at the idea [of washing your hands], there's also an emotional side to it: The fact that washing hands can prevent you from falling ill. You can also look at it from a love perspective: Because I love you so much, I don't want you to fall sick.
The lyrics include the line, "Prevent Ebola, prevent diarrhea, wash your hands o!" How does it feel to sing about diseases that nobody wants to hear about?
I really am not bothered by it. I just want to do some good. I just want to help someone out there in my own little way. If you can just listen to me and hear me out, that's good enough for me.
Has the song caught on? Do you get people singing it to you on the street?
I'm getting a whole lot of that! People are singing the song a lot! And kids are doing their own interpretations in their native dialects. It's such a beautiful thing. [Concern Universal has facilitated a talent competition among Nigeria's schools in which children create their own renditions of the song.]
Has this changed the way you wash your hands?
To tell you the truth, it has. I used to not wash my hands as much as I do now. I'm so conscious of it now. I think of my song every time when I wash. When my daughters come home from school, they'll want to pick up a snack, and I'll ask them, "Did you wash your hands?" And they'll say, "Yes."
And if I forget, my littlest daughter [who is 9] will ask me if I've washed my hands.
Now that you've dipped into hand-washing, is there any other cause you'd like to sing about?
We're going through a recession in Nigeria. So I'm trying to tackle that by giving people some hope. I'm trying to say: Tough times will come, but if we can just stick together in love and unity, then we'll get through this period. I have a song like that which I just released a couple of weeks ago. It's called "Aeroplane Turner."
What would you say to other artists who might be interested in getting involved with a cause?
I would advise them to always be as pro-people as they can. We live in this world with other people — some are privileged, and some are not. Whatever we can do, in our own little way, we should do.