Struggle for life

Stephanie Domet talks to AIDS activist Stephen Lewis about Africa and the hope that he’ll see change for the continent in his lifetime.

Stephen Lewis is a man consumed, but then, that’s not news. Lewis, the United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa is known as much for his passion for Africa as for anything else in his life—his diplomacy, his career as leader of Ontario’s NDP, his famous family (he’s married to journalist Michele Landsberg, is father to Avi Lewis, and father-in-law to Naomi Klein).

Here’s a man who speaks easily and plainly about his despair over conditions on the continent that fascinates him. His straightforward honesty on the subject has been profiled before—when Stephanie Nolen wrote about him in the Globe and Mail it triggered such an outpouring, Lewis now has a charitable foundation that funds small projects on a community level in Africa. And it’s no surprise that a man of Lewis’s standing would be invited to give this year’s Massey Lectures, which he is doing across the country, including in Halifax on Wednesday, October 26. The lecture he’ll deliver here is “the most controversial of them, and my favourite; it’s the lecture on women,” Lewis says over the phone from Vancouver, where his lecture tour is beginning. He’s in the Fairmont Vancouver, an upscale hotel, nursing a sore throat with room service soup.

The lecture he’ll give here, called “Women: Half the world, barely represented,” upbraids the United Nations—his employer—for its terrible record on women’s rights, particularly in Africa, but also in its own halls. Those halls are about as far from the source of Lewis’s passion as the hotel he’s sitting in, and though they represent the official channels through which change comes, for Lewis, they’re still often a source of frustration.

“The life one leads around this is always schizo, it always feels both real and unreal simultaneously. These problems are real and insistent in Africa, you cannot escape them, there is such a struggle for life, and in North America, it is so privileged, so concerned with material wellbeing, and the rhetoric never matches what you know has to happen on the ground. You have a fevered sense that things are out of whack. What hurts is the recognition that everything is moving too slowly. It’s not the contrast between worlds; you learn to live with that, people do it all the time. But you know people are dying, you know it doesn’t have to happen, you know you could intervene and make a difference, but everything moves at such a snail’s pace.”

That snail’s pace where Africa is concerned forms the basis of Lewis’s Massey Lectures. Taken as a whole, they’re called Race Against Time. He’ll deliver a different lecture in each of five cities, and the lectures will be broadcast all together in November on CBC Radio. In addition, they’ve been published. The book makes for a bleak but vital read, crammed with people dying needlessly and a nation of orphans left behind, against the backdrop of a cavalier west that throws more blocks in the road (in the form of user fees for schools and medicines, and too little in foreign aid and understanding) than it helps remove.

Also up for criticism as more hindrance than help is Sir Bob Geldof, the ex-Boomtown Rat who orchestrated Live 8, and declared last summer’s G8 conference in Gleneagles, Scotland, an unqualified success. Lewis begs to differ.

“Giving Gleneagles 10 out of 10 was ridiculous,” Lewis says. “I mean, there’s no question that with the Live 8 concerts there was tremendous consciousness raised, but he overstates everything with such hyperbole.” Lewis says the first test of the G8’s resolve came in September, with the replenishment of the global fund for Africa. “Everyone was excited, they thought the momentum would carry over, and they ended up falling $3.4 billion short of where they were supposed to be. So the business of rhapsodizing over a document from a summit which has never delivered on its promises doesn’t help.” Lewis pauses. “Bono, for my money, is much more careful and plausible, because he knows when things aren’t working, and he says so.”

Qualities, of course, that Lewis and Bono share. But Lewis also says he can see that things could work. “I think that if we can beat the pandemic of AIDS and ease the excruciating poverty, there’s great hope for the continent. If they’re given half a chance, the Africans can easily run their continent as one that rivals any other. They need support to get over the devastating humps of disease and poverty, and to the lesser extent, conflict. I hope to see it in my lifetime.”

Lewis is 67, he’ll turn 68 on Remembrance Day. He’s sure that if the west answers its responsibility on the twin scourges of AIDS and hunger, he’ll see the change he’s tried to be. And though he may not be Bono-famous, he’s still highly recognizable to Canadians—and maybe as inspiring.

“I was in Winnipeg, in an elevator, going up to the tenth floor,” he says, “and at the fourth floor a guy got on, and we were going up. And he looked at me very carefully, and said, ‘you’re Stephen Lewis,’ and I said, ‘yeah,’ and he said, ‘My son’s in Ethiopia because of you, and I don’t like it.’”

Lewis says he’s seeing more Canadians—retired people, students, young women especially—who are willing to give a chunk of their lives to working in a developing country. That continuing active compassion is one partial cure for what ails Africa. And then there’s money. The west has a responsibility to Africa, Lewis says, in part because colonialism did terrible damage there, and also because the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, in which the west has a controlling interest, have together finished the job in more recent times. The G8 nations have agreed to use .7 percent of their GDP to help Africa—except that both the US and Japan fall well short of that figure, even taking into account that both have recently pledged to double their support. And then, says Lewis, there’s the private sector. “If the private sector adopted its own version of .7, it would unleash tremendous resources: if treatment for AIDS were sustained, if we had the ability to treat the mothers, prevent transmission during birth—there are 2.2 million children living with AIDS, and half a million die each year.” That sad statistic is part of a vicious cycle: women are infected with AIDS. They sicken, and cannot work the land and produce food. Without food, the antiretroviral drugs, if they are lucky enough to receive them, cannot work. And without food and drugs, the disease takes fatal hold. The women die, leaving millions of orphans, who may be infected themselves. “On October 25,” Lewis says, “UNICEF is launching a worldwide campaign on children and AIDS, and if they’re successful, they want to raise a billion dollars over six years, and attend to the needs of 10 million orphans. That’s only half of what’s needed, but it could still make a difference.”

Lewis does the impossible every single day: somehow, he remains hopeful. “Treatment has been unleashed, and it’s irreversible. It does bring hope. People get tested, there are drugs for them, they remain alive, and that’s obviously tremendously encouraging in a society that has known no solace. The treatment initiative has the potential to turn things around, and I’d like to be around, in any role. And I think it may come in 2006. People will be persuaded that treatment is going to be rolled out for all, and the world will generally understand that there’s no turning back: we’ve got the drugs, we’re learning how to get them out to people, we’ll deal with the lack of human capacity, and with user fees and all that. And that will give the world a new lease on life on this virus.”

Massey lecture with Stephen lewis, October 26 at the Rebecca Cohn, 6101 Univerysity, 8pm. 494-3820.

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