Jack Allison: Songs About AIDS

This article all but wrote itself. Sometimes you just get out of the way and tell the story.

Dr. Jack Allison lives here in Asheville.

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Malawi’s most successful songwriter isn’t from Malawi. He isn’t even from Africa. He’s a Baltimore-born white man who lives in Haw Creek, who turned three years in sub-Saharan Africa into a career in Afropop with a message that’s netted him over $150,000 in record sales.

“How many white boys with a red neck do you know who speak a variant of Swahili?” asked Jack Allison, 64, former Peace Corps volunteer, physician and public health hit-maker.

Over forty years ago, at age 22, Allison decided to join the Peace Corps. He looked over the brochures, and, equally enticed by the blurbs about every country where volunteers were needed, found himself unable to choose.

 

So he told the Corps to just send him wherever he would be most useful. “I didn’t choose Africa,” he said. “The Peace Corps chose Africa for me.”

 

In Malawi he lived as the villagers did, in a mud hut with a thatched roof and a dirt floor, no electricity, no running water and a hole in the ground as a latrine. “After three years, my aim was impeccable,” he said.

As well as latrine marksmanship, he also learned how to reach people through music.

“I had never written one song before Malawi,” Allison said. But there he began an Afropop-flavored public-health career that now includes 70 recorded songs about concerns from boiling drinking water to encouraging villagers to wash their hands after a trip to the chimbudzi (latrine).

“The Peace Corps affords volunteers not only the chance to do their job, which is straightforward, but to use a modicum of creativity to enhance their job,” he said.

Allison’s biggest hit, “Ufa Wa Mtedza” (“Peanut Flour”), in which an African band provides rockabilly backing for an American singer, encouraged Malawian mothers to supplement their babies’ diet of maize porridge with peanut flour, a better source of protein.

The song was number one in Malawi for 3 1/2 years.

Allison used the profits from record sales to set up a foundation that gave grants to people doing charitable works in Malawi, and also to offer a young Malawian man an education at Warren Wilson College.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, Allison also worked in a child and infant clinic, measuring babies’ weight, head circumference and chest circumference, and plotting the measurements on a graph. He counseled nursing mothers to breastfeed as long as possible, leading an unusual cultural encounter one evening as he enjoyed a beer with the local men.

He’d been in Malawi for a few months, and felt comfortable with his friends from the village. He could tell there was something they wanted to tell him, but were uncertain how to bring up politely.

Eventually the men revealed that Malawian custom dictates that women cannot have sex with their husbands from the time they learn they are pregnant to the time the baby is weaned, making Allison’s position of asking mothers to breastfeed for over a year a decidedly awkward piece of medical advice.

“It was a cross-cultural confrontation in the best sense,” Allison said, referring to how the evening led not to anger, but to a deeper understanding of Malawian custom, and exactly what he was asking of Malawian couples with a new baby at home.

Allison characterizes Malawians as a people of exquisite politeness. As a person of Southern heritage if not birth, he says he too was also raised to be extraordinarily polite, something he says brought him deep understanding and closeness with the people of Malawi.

Originally assigned for a two-year stint in Malawi, Allison voluntarily signed on for a third year.

“I was having such a good time,” he said.

Decades after his 1967-1969 Peace Corps experience, now both a parent and a physician with a Master’s degree in public health, Allison was in Africa again, in 1982, 1994 and 2005. Concerns had changed drastically since the ’60s, from infant nutrition and dirty latrine hands to the crisis that is sub-Saharan HIV/AIDS.

Malawian HIV infection rates were in the double digits, with some areas, Allison said, at 30 percent infected among females of childbearing age in urban areas.

Again, Allison made music with a message. Backed by the Love Aquarius Band and the Sapitwa Band for a 1997 Malawian release, Allison, now on lead vocals in Chichewa (Malawian Swahili) recorded an entire CD, Songs About AIDS (Nyimbo za EDZI).

His songs tell listeners that HIV can’t be transmitted by casual contact (“You Can’t Get AIDS From a Handshake”). They also beseech young women to avoid “sugar daddies” (older men who entice young women into having unprotected sex for money), urge condom use (“Use a Condom!”) and ask for compassion for those with HIV.

Currently, Allison is working out the details for a fifth trip to Africa, and writing a book about his years as a Peace Corps volunteer.

“I had an enchanted experience,” he said.

Listen to Allison’s public health music at afriendofmalawi.com/jack’s_page.htm

 

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