First Person: Stephen Lewis 

On making a world of difference

click to enlarge Stephen Lewis Photo by WFP/Brenda Barton.
  • Stephen Lewis Photo by WFP/Brenda Barton.

Stephen Lewis seems almost taken aback when asked if $10 can really make a difference in Africa. He well knows just how far $10 can go. It can mean the difference between an orphaned child going hungry for weeks on end or having food to quiet those growling hunger pains. It can mean the difference between a young mother living and dying with HIV/AIDS in squalor, or having a bar of soap, clothing and a sleeping mat to ease the pain. It can mean the difference between millions of African grandmothers having support as they care for their orphaned grandchildren rather than facing the struggle alone.

Ten dollars can mean a world of difference.

As UN Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa from 2001 to 2006 Stephen Lewis saw the devastation wreaking havoc across the continent where women are disproportionately affected by the pandemic (three women are infected for every two men) and children are being orphaned at the most alarming rates — 13 million orphans to date, expected to grow to 18 million by 2010.

He decided to do something about it. That something was to create the Stephen Lewis Foundation. It has raised $26 million since 2003, money that is funneled into grassroots organizations where it can directly help the people most in need. Some of that money has come from $10 donations, others larger, like the $100,000 cheque from the Sechelt man who recently sold his house.

To listen to Stephen Lewis is to begin to understand the frustration of a world watching but not helping. To hear him talk is to realize the emotional and human toll of HIV/AIDS in a place like sub-Saharan Africa. He says it is not hopeless. He believes Africa will be able to beat the pandemic ravaging its people but it needs help. That help isn’t coming as quickly as Africa needs it, a fact that baffles the Canadian humanitarian.

In the second part of his interview with Pique Newsmagazine’s Alison Taylor, Stephen Lewis speaks candidly about the crisis and insists the world take notice. He is speaking at Whistler Secondary School tomorrow (Friday, Oct. 19). All the proceeds will go to the Stephen Lewis Foundation — www.stephenlewisfoundation.org .

Pique: Can you share a small story that stuck with you from last month’s trip to Kenya, South Africa and Lesotho?

Stephen Lewis: At one point outside Nairobi I met with 40 grandmothers. The grandmothers have become important to the Stephen Lewis Foundation because of the tie between the grandmothers of Canada and the grandmothers of Africa. I met 40 African grandmothers and they said to me that they each wanted to stand and tell their story. And it was really quite overwhelming because every story was basically identical. The grandmother would stand and say ‘I buried my daughter last week.’ ‘I buried my son last year.’ ‘I buried my daughter-in-law two years ago.’ ‘I now have their children living with me.’ ‘I have seven children, nine children, 11 orphaned grandchildren living with me.’ ‘I’m 70 years old. How much longer will I live and what will happen to the children when I die?’ And there was so much intensity. They’re such magnificent women. They’re so determined to keep their grandchildren going and yet the pain of losing their own children is etched in everything they say.

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