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Graffiti artists join doctors on health campaign

 Street News Service 13 June 2019

In many parts of the world, graffiti is considered a form of vandalism carried out by those rebelling against society. In Dakar, Senegal, a group of graffiti artists are challenging this notion by using their spray guns to spread messages that help promote social development. (1097 Words) - By Amanda Fortier

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A taxi speeds on to the busy artery of the VDN past Docta’s piece de resistance, the mural of “Unity in Diversity” created for FESMAN.Photo: Paul Farrall.

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Docta’s “tag” on the road support of the VDN, Sipres roundabout, Dakar.Photo: Paul Farrall.

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This notebook is the bubbling cauldron of Docta’s future projects. Here he demonstrates a mural planned for the very near future.Photos: Paul Farrall

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Docta outside his colorfully decorated Medina residence.Photo: Paul Farrall.

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A moment of relative serenity on Rue 6 in front of the artist’s “Sante Amul Prix” mural, Medina.Photos: Paul Farrall


Hip hop and health are an unlikely combination. But in Senegal's capital city, Dakar, graffiti artists and doctors have joined forces to help raise awareness about disease such as AIDS, diabetes, malaria and tuberculosis.

The project, known as Graff & Santé ('health' in English), was spearheaded in 2008 by the pioneer of graffiti art in Senegal. It's no coincidence that this artist's tag name is Docta.

Docta, whose real name is Amadou Lamine Ngom, first started using the bleak cement walls of Dakar as his personal canvas in the mid 1980's. Back then nobody understood what he was doing.

"At the time people were confused by my work, because it was more artistic," explains Docta from his home in Medina, an inner-city neighborhood in Dakar. "But at one point I had to simplify the messages so that people could read and understand what I was saying."

The idea for the Graff & Santé came as a response to how Docta sees the evolving role of graffiti art in Senegal.

"Graffiti can be a trampoline of communication between the population and urban art," says Docta. "In the beginning the goal of graffiti was to instigate revolts, but at some point you also have to bring something to the population. We can't just be there saying no, it's not going well, we also have to bring forward solutions."

Graff & Santé is a three-day event that involves Docta's team of graffiti artists, known as the "Doxandem Squad". They go out to the lower-income neighborhoods of Dakar to paint public murals decorated with massive colorful images and slogans. They write messages in the local Wolof language such as "health has no price" and "unity in diversity" Doctors are then invited to come to set up tents directly in the street where they give free testing and consultations, hand out medication and provide mosquito nets. During the first Graff & Santé event, doctors were able to test 87 people - many of whom would, otherwise, never visit a doctor.

"Most Senegalese have an aversion to going to hospitals," explains Docta. "They think the medical staff is rude or the drugs are too expensive. Graffiti artists can encourage the population and doctors to come together in the street, which is important because it is a neutral space where locals feel less intimidated."

Compared to many African countries, Senegal has achieved relatively good headway in its health progress. They have one of the lowest HIV rates on the continent, at around one percent. But according to the international AIDS/HIV charity group Avert, there is still the risk numbers can go up as it has in other West African nations, such as Cameroon and Gabon. Tuberculosis, which is often fuelled by the spread of HIV, is not as rampant as it is in South Africa or Nigeria, but it is still considered a 'major health burden' in Senegal by the international aid group, USAID. And in the fight against malaria, Senegal is taking remarkable steps forward.  A nationwide distribution of mosquito nets and a now standardized use of rapid diagnostic tests have helped reduce reported cases of malaria by 41% between 2008 and 2009. But there is still much work to be done and Docta and the Doxandem Squad are not about to sit back.

This year's upcoming Graff & Santé Festival is scheduled for the beginning of September when the rainy season is at its height. The group plans to work in the outskirts of Dakar in some of the poorest neighborhoods where people are most affected by persistent flooding. Combined with a lack of drainage facilities and proper sanitation, these areas become fertile grounds where malaria and tuberculosis often become endemic.

"If we can help Senegalese people then it's our job," affirms Docta. "We have to do it. It's this type of social-engagement that graffiti has always had, but that we are actually materialising. It is only by doing this that they are able to envision a future different from the one they are currently living."

Amadou Dior Ndiaye is a cultural manager in Senegal who applauds the initiative Docta took to launch what, to his knowledge, is the only project of its kind in Africa.

"We're living in a world where we can't wait for anyone, especially in terms of our health," says Ndiaye. "It is like a person who's thirsty. They're not going to wait for someone to give them a glass of water. The young people in Senegal today want to take their destiny in their own hands and they don't want to wait for anybody."

Sidebar - Engaging the young in social development

When graffiti first made its way across the Atlantic from the United States, over two decades ago, there was much debate over its legality. As in many parts of the word, graffiti in Senegal is still illegal. But unlike in many Western and even some African countries, it is generally accepted in Senegal. The likelihood that an artist is arrested for painting murals with social or political messages is very slim.

Professor Abdoulaye Niang, a sociologist and researcher specializing in graffiti art and urban hip-hop culture at Gaston Berger University in Senegal, believes the Senegalese tend to see graffiti as something that is multifunctional, with a social, cultural and political value, as well as an aesthetic purpose.

"People here are more likely to accept graffiti compared to the West or even other parts of Africa, because they consider it more as beauty than vandalism," says Professor Niang. "It has become a way for young people to express themselves in a society that still has strong respect for its elders. It allows the young people a certain amount of honorability. They can become producers and not just consumers of their society."

As it happens with many art projects, it is difficult to measure the impact of an event such as Graff & Santé in improving health. Professor Niang admits this often makes people skeptical of its real value.

"All I can say is that after the (health) murals went up, the number of testing went also went up. But this was only in the areas where graffiti artists worked alongside the doctors. I think this is a good sign and it shows their messages have an impact on the population."

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