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Noted Humanitarian and AIDS-HIV Activist Steven Lewis Comes to Whistler

abstract:I heard the first firecracker go off in the street outside my office window just now, reminding me that Halloween is approaching for all the happy, carefree school children here in the West. This is not the case for the millions of children in Africa. Last evening the third in a series of talks put on by Whistler Community Services Organization hosted world-renowned Canadian human rights advocate, UN ambassador and HIV-AIDS speaker, Stephen Lewis. The sold-out 800-seat crowd gathered in the Whistler High School gymnasium gave organizers a fright just two days away from the event when only a quarter of them had purchased their $20 ticket. Proceeds go to the Stephen Lewis Foundation. Click title for full article.


October 20, 2007

Meet Stephen Lewis

Stephen Lewis is a consummate orator. [Listen to his Massey lecture, and check back to this article in a day or so as we process the compelling audio of this talk via MP3 format.] His experience in Africa -- the depth and breadth of his travels and contacts -- reminds me of Prime Minister Disraeli’s comment about King Edward VII at the turn of the century: “He has seen everything and met everyone.” In Stephen’s case this comment goes far deeper. It is more accurate to say that he has acted as a Father at the confession booth for all the impoverished, diseased, war-ravaged and largely ignored victims of the worst pandemic the world has known. He will go on this evening peppering his speech with invocations and descriptions of heart-wrenching encounters with African people at their most haunting and desperate moments: raped, orphaned, tortured people trying desperately to survive and return to a place of dignity and stability.

In a lecture that started off humorously with his early experience running a campaign in Salmon Arm, BC, for the precursor of the NDP party (we’ll forgive him that), he continued saying how his next stint with the Tories was “not just cleansing, but positively neutering.” The crowd laughed along as he recalled his transformation from a feckless politician to his true calling as a humanitarian rights advocate and tireless campaigner for the African people.

For a moment, let’s consider what Stephen Lewis is doing here in Whistler. Like Clinton and Gore and Bono and Madonna, and other politicians and celebrities, he is here to raise money for his personal foundation and create an awareness and a consciousness among First World communities.

But Stephen’s situation is different from all of the above; his methods and his audience are different too. He is not a multi-millionaire; his fame has not come through platinum records, hit DVDs, or stints in the White House. He has spent years in the trenches, dedicated to service at the United Nations, UNICEF and countless humanitarian boards and tribunals. His Stephen Lewis Foundation is focused on connecting average Canadians (and people in the Western world) to wake up to the urgency in Africa and as the title of his book suggests, Race Against Time: Searching for Hope in AIDS-Ravaged Africa (CBC Massey Lecture) that is ticking down to the destruction of lives and the bases of society in Africa. From school kids to grandmothers. Read on.

If WWI was the "war to end all wars" that resulted in the loss of the lives of the brightest and best that generation had to offer, then what Stephen is describing in Africa is exponentially greater. An entire generation is being wiped off the face of the earth, leaving orphans and grandmothers to cope and carry on in what Stephen describes as a monumentally more consequential phenomenon.

People today debate why Africa has been struggling -- for years -- to rise above hyper-poverty, which is defined as earning only a dollar a day. They ask why all the billions of dollars in aid from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the efforts of a veritable alphabet soup of NGOs (non-governmental agencies) and the unprecedented support of the UN, both the peace-keeping and the humanitarian branches, have failed in their work, their donations and humanitarian efforts.

It is a complex situation, but suffice it to say that disease, war, ethnic conflict, political corruption, greedy First World collusion for resources and ignorance have contributed to this travesty. People with malaria and AIDS cannot work to support their families when they are too sick to get out of bed. People who are driven from their fields into the jungle during harvest because of civil war cannot feed their families. Insanely wealthy kleptocracies will not effectively build infrastructure or fund education or import-export trade goods for the peoples of their country; and First World governments who provide arms to military, who provide assistance to weak and corrupt politicians for the purpose of puppetry, are each writing the death sentence of millions and condemning a majority to poverty and strife.

How does it stop? How do we in the West turn it around? Stephen Lewis is one of many leaders in the fight for Africa. If you missed his talk Friday, tune in to the rebroadcast on Whistler's Cable network or view one of many podcasts online. Read his book. Log onto the web and learn about his foundation. Now is the time to act. Look at your bank account. Tally up your family living expenses. Subtract the amount you need to provide for your retirement and a healthy safety net for your family and your kids' education. And then give generously. Give now.

If you can’t give – DO. As Stephen Lewis pointed out, there are numerous ways people can help. Run a race and raise funds. Make a Power Point presentation and give talks. Collect computers or bicycles. Adopt a school or hospital in your community. Take your medical skills, your nursing skills, your teaching skills, your engineering skills, your small-business skills, your physical labor capabilities, and approach an NGO that could use a block of your time in lieu of that Hawaiian vacation. Better yet, take a month or two off work, if you can afford it, and make a once-in-a-lifetime commitment. Your vision of the world will never be the same.

The final and most compelling part of Stephen Lewis’s talk on Friday was his passionate outcry for the women of Africa. There is an emerging awareness of a systematic destruction of women, girls, and grandmothers through hyper-violent rape. Things he described and alluded to are almost unfathomable to us.

If you would like to see an award-winning documentary on the medical center that Stephen Lewis was describing last night, located in the Eastern province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the video is called LUMO. It captures the very essence of this situation in a tender, poignant, and powerful story of one woman’s journey out of hell. It was loaned to me by two housewives, Amanda and Deborah from West Vancouver, who formed Souls in Stride which has raised thousands of dollars for the project -- they have funded 800 surgeries, transforming that many women's lives. It is compelling, and if you need a further endorsement, it has been screened on PBS.

LUMO was violently raped and inflicted with a vaginal wound that left her incontinent and incapacitated with pain. Abandoned by her village for the stigma of rape, the smell of her condition, and her inability to look after herself, she was waiting to die.

Along came workers of Heal Africa Foundation to take her to a clinic dedicated to treating victims of violent rape. I have a copy of this video and am in the process of scheduling a date and venue to screen it. If you would like to attend, if you could help with these arrangements, if you could help get the word out to people, I would be most grateful.

Call +1 (604) 907-2804 and speak to me or leave a message. Share this article with your email list and get back to us. The film is powerful but has no graphic content and I would say it is entirely suitable for mature high school students. One of the high school students at last night’s Steven Lewis event went up to the mic at the end and abruptly said, “I’m pissed.” That is the kind of spark that can promise action. Let the innocents lead the way.



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