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Poet expresses health crisis through art

Sekou Sundiata, suffering from kidney disease and in need of a transplant, did not believe his friends when they offeredinsisted, actuallythat they would donate one of their kidneys.

The acclaimed poet Sundiata protested that he could not accept such a generous gift from the five friends who came forward to give up one of their two functioning kidneys. They told him he would have to because they had already made the decision.

Many people, particularly African-Americans, facing kidney failure do not find themselves as fortunate as Sundiata, who is, according to the Village Voice, "to contemporary African-American poetry what Marvin Gaye was to modern soul."

A panel discussion at the Michigan League Jan. 13 addressed Sundiata's journey from sickness back to health, the challenges of kidney disease and finding ample donors, and the history of using art and music for healing. "Understanding the Patient Experience through the Arts: Values and Society Program (LSVSP); The Program in Culture, Health and Medicine; Gifts of Art; and UMS. Co-sponsors included: Center for Afroamerican and African Studies; Complementary and Alternative Medicine Research Center; Program in Society and Medicine; School of Social Work; and the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program.

Lester Monts, a U-M ethnomusicologist, discussed the long tradition of arts and music in healing. Sundiata has described himself as coming from a background of testifying and witnessing, sharing personal stories to convey love, honor and grace, and Monts invoked images of African tribal ceremonies and Sunday school teachers to show the intersection of performance, story telling and spirituality.

Monts is senior vice provost for academic and multicultural affairs, senior counselor to the president for arts, diversity and undergraduate affairs, and a professor at the School of Music.

Sundiata, who received a transplant and is now recovered, is on campus for a series of performances sponsored by the University Musical Society (UMS). He performs a combination of jazz and spoken word at 8 p.m. Jan. 20 at the Michigan Theater; call (734) 764-2538 for tickets.

Sponsors for the panel included: the Life Sciences, Kidney Disease and Transplantation" was presented as part of the Health, Arts and Human Condition series, in conjunction with the symposium honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

Akinlolu Ojo, associate professor of internal medicine at the Medical School, pointed out that for reasons, perhaps both nature and nurture, kidney failure "is not an equal opportunity disease." African Americans have kidney disease at a rate of four or five times that of other groups, as they also suffer in large numbers from high blood pressure and diabetes, which can contribute to kidney disease.

Kidneys cleanse the body of waste, and if they don't function properly, patients must undergo dialysis, drawing out their blood and removing impurities several times a week. Still, they face decreased life expectancies without a transplant. While the number of people needing transplants continues to rise, Ojo said, the number of donors is flat, with relatively few African Americans donating healthy, usable kidneys.

He noted that a kidney is more likely to be compatible when it comes from a donor of the same race, but that doesn't prevent a recipient from taking a kidney from someone of another race.

For more about LSVSP, visit For more information about Sundiata, visit To learn about organ donation, visit

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