An old friend was in the news today. He’s not so much a friend of mine, more a familiar face and voice. Every so often he pops up on the television, or in the papers, and then disappears again. You see, what Stephen Lewis has to say usually makes everyone very uncomfortable.
Today he was talking about serious under-funding in the search for an AIDS vaccine. He told a group of researchers in Montreal that they needed to lend their voices and authority to the demands for more money to assist in the development of the vaccine. The consequences of a world without it are almost too dire to contemplate.
The trouble with Stephen Lewis is that he doesn’t know what the word subtle means. He comes out and tells the truth without any sugar coating. Another problem is that there is no disputing his facts. His reputation is such that you know what he says is the truth. He’s even one of those rare people who will admit they are wrong publicly.
If it sounds like I admire the guy, well, you are right. Real heroes are few and far between when you are talking about public figures (there are tons of heroes in this world: single moms and dads who raise their kids up well, people who work 15 hour shifts in emergency rooms, cops, firemen, etc.) Too many of our “heroes” have spin doctors and publicists working for them for my comfort. So when a genuine one appears, he or she deserves recognition.
As Steven Lewis is currently the Secretary General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa he knows what he’s talking about. He has the utterly thankless and heartrending job of trying to convince the rest of the world to do something about the plight of people living in that colonial hung-over continent. That alone should qualify him for heroic laurels, but he does more.
He doesn’t just work out of an office in New York. He spends his time shuttling between Africa and the rest of the world. One day he’ll be touring the red light district of Nairobi talking to the prostitutes about HIV, and the next he’ll be in Paris browbeating politicians about the need to remember those women are humans who need our help.
From the wards of under-funded and ill-equipped hospitals where people lay dying, to the offices of power, he fights to overcome the horrendous problems facing Africa. Meeting with tribal elders in an attempt to overcome cultural taboos concerning talking about sex, arguing for debt relief for poor countries; it’s all on his agenda.
How he cannot feel like he is continually facing a door slammed in his face I don’t know. Indifference has been the biggest enemy of Africa for years. From the forlorn efforts of General Dallaire of Canada trying to convince the rest of the world that there really was a problem in Rwanda, to the current fight to get anyone to understand the need for real debt relief programs, the problems of Africa seem to fall on deaf ears.
The only thing that seems to be of interest to anyone is the fact that Africa represents a vast untapped wealth of natural resources. Oil in Nigeria, oil in the Sudan: The big O word has everyone scampering to see who gets to exploit it first.
We are left with a single man as our conscience, fighting to keep Africa in the headlines of the papers, making a nuisance of himself by telling anyone who will listen how truly horrific the situation has become. He started pushing this agenda when he was Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations in the mid-eighties.
The reward for his efforts has been to become a one-man spokesperson and fulcrum for anything positive to get done on that continent. He has set up a charitable foundation to fight AIDS through education and medical assistance,The Stephen Lewis Foundation
The foundation has three very definite purposes, and has instituted policies and safeguards to ensure that monies are delivered to their intended recipients. They curtail administration costs by having only minimal staff, and soliciting in kind donations for as much work as possible.
They are currently funding thirty-one grass roots projects that are in accordance with the goals of the foundation. By working directly with the groups on the ground they are able to cut out any middle people who could potentially divert monies from those who need it the most.
The foundation’s three primary areas of concern are: to provide palliative care to women dying of AIDS ensuring their last days are as dignified and pain free as possible, to assist those children left orphaned by AIDS with food and the payment of school fees, and to support associations of men and women living with the disease so that they can educate themselves and others about the realities of the illness.
While this may sound complex, it can be as simple as teaching a dying person’s family how to best care for their loved one and providing them with items essential to that task. Rubber gloves, disinfectant, proper food, and sleeping mats may sound trivial to us, but it is these simple things that make a difference for desperate people.
“The situation of people living and dying with AIDS in parts of Africa is so desperate that even the most basic help will bring solace and hope”
If it seem a disproportionate amount of the foundations efforts are directed towards women it is because they are disproportionately struck down with the disease. Of the 25 million people in the sub-Sahara region of Africa with HIV/AIDS between the ages of 15 and 49, 58% (or 15 million of them) are women. Of the 6.2 million between the ages of 15 and 24, 75% are women or girls.
It is estimated that more than 20 million children in Africa will be without at least one parent by the year 2010. In those situations the children are the ones who will do without. Losing one parent means either insufficient food, or not enough money for them to attend school.
The worst-case scenarios are when a child has to become the head of the family. Children as young as fourteen left caring for their younger siblings, losing any kind of chance of a childhood of their own. There are already far too many adult children in this world, but to have to watch your parents die, and then turn around and raise your brothers and sisters, is far too great a burden to place on anyone, let alone a young person.
The Stephen Lewis Foundation is an extension of the man’s commitment to the plight of people unable to help themselves. The foundation works with communities to assist them find the means to help each other and themselves. Only through these types of programs will real progress be made in the fight against HIV/AIDS in small communities.
While Stephen Lewis carries the fight to the politicians and the boardrooms of the powerful; attempting to get funding for vaccine development and pushing for the availability of cheaper generic versions of current AIDS fighting drugs, his foundation is working from the ground up. All of us can only hope that the day comes soon when the two forces will meet in the middle.
If Stephen Lewis simply did what he does, he would deserve our respect. The fact that he can do this with hope, without anger and cynicism, with compassion and strength, and still maintain his enthusiasms for life, well that just makes him all the more special a person.
I would like to ask all bloggers who read this post to do what I’m going to do: provide a permanent link on their home site to the Steven Lewis Foundation and encourage people to donate. I have contacted the foundation to ask for permission to make a graphic link from their logo, if that does happen please feel free to steal it from my home page and use it on your site. It’s one place you know your money is being put to good use.
Thank You Stephen Lewis for being the voice for so many people who have no one to speak for them. You are an example for all of us.