Stephen Lewis' African journey

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Stephen Lewis at mobile clinic in Uganda. Image credit: Judy Jackson. Used with permission.

Editor's note: In part one of this series Judy Jackson related how an ailing Stephen Lewis has been actively calling for wealthy countries to make vaccines for COVID-19 far more available to developing countries.

Jackson is a filmmaker and has directed three award-winning documentaries for the CBC's The Nature of Things about Lewis and his work. Here, in part two, she describes Lewis' work in Africa combatting the HIV/AIDS crisis.

As a young man Stephen Lewis worked as a teacher in Africa and fell in love with the continent. Later, I witnessed many aspects of Stephen Lewis' endless work as UN HIV/AIDS envoy. 

Even when the price of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) eventually came down, he railed against their slow delivery.

In the film The Value of Life (2004,) we followed him as he visited the Kitovu mobile clinic in the Ugandan countryside, and watched counsellors trying to help 4,000 sick adults and 3,000 orphans. They had heard of the miraculous recoveries of people who are given ARVs, and asked Stephen when they too could have them, so they wouldn't die.

"I feel angry, because it's just all so crazy," said Stephen Lewis.

"All the drugs are out there and -- you sit under the tress with these people, and the first thing they talk about is anti-retroviral drugs because they want to live. Of course, they should live and that's what makes these scenes so Dante-esque. You look around at the faces of these lovely people we met today and you know there is no reason for them to die."

In spite of the emotional impact of these intense encounters, he kept up his urgent pace.

"I know I have been desperately tired," he told me, "but this job has so consumed me that there doesn't seem to be time for anything else. I know that every minute we're not engaged, people are dying. And when you see these people, it makes you want to give every ounce of strength and energy you can command to the fight against the pandemic."

I filmed as he advocated for women who were the face of HIV/AIDs in Africa but had few rights. He became their voice. In Kenya's vast Kibera slum, I filmed Rosa, as she was bathed by a compassionate unpaid caregiver. She would die six months later.

"As a woman, you are stuck at home," Rosa told me. "You don't know what your husband is up to. When mine came back he didn't tell me he was infected. We made love -- men refuse to wear condoms -- it leads to a lot of arguments. He died of AIDS."

In some areas a whole generation of breadwinners had been wiped out, leaving hundreds of thousands of orphaned children to be brought up by their poverty-stricken grandmothers.

Granny Irene, who was looking after six orphaned grandchildren in Johannesburg's run-down Alexandria township, told me:

"Sometimes I go four or five days without food. If the children don't see the cooking pots on the stove, they just go to bed early. I tell them 'Let's pray, maybe God will give us something tomorrow.'"

Stephen Lewis consulted with hundreds of women's groups. "The whole society is sustained by these astonishingly resilient, determined women who, with next to no money, create miracles," he said. "They find a way to feed people and keep them alive. They find a way to give orphans love. It's unbelievable -- if they had just a little support, they could transform the situation. That's what I've been so personally enraged about, because it doesn't take that much."

Given the glacial pace of bureaucratic change, Lewis set up the Stephen Lewis Grandmother to Grandmother Foundation.

"I set up the foundation when I returned from a trip and I was in despair. I had, for whatever reason, happened on a number of homes where the mothers were dying, in the most awful of circumstances, and the children were standing in the hut watching them die and I couldn't stand that."  

It was a brilliant idea.

If governments haven't cared much, Canadian grandmothers certainly do. They've responded by raising money through quilting bees, sponsored cycle rides, selling baked goods.

In Stephen Lewis: The Man Who Couldn't Sleep (2006,) I filmed a very joyful first grandmother to grandmother conference in Toronto. Amidst singing, dancing and tears, African grannies shared their pain with Canadian grandmothers and formed bonds  which have continued to this day.

To date, 400 Canadian grandmother groups have raised enough money to commit $130.7 million for programs in over 1,800 projects in 325 community-based grandmother organizations, in 15 African countries. 35,000 African grandmothers have been helped, and 25,000 children have received HIV testing and counselling. The projects are carefully monitored by Africans at the grassroots.

At the UN AIDS conference in Toronto, in 2006, as he stepped down from his UN job, Stephen Lewis called for a substantial UN women's agency. 

That too happened, in a way. The United Nations expanded, in fact, re-invented, an agency that had existed since the 1970s: UNIFEM.

African women were there to thank Lewis for being the voice they did not have.

"As special envoy you came to Africa and you saw the havoc that HIV/AIDS was causing, and you didn't just talk and walk away. You fought, you screamed, you pushed, you prodded," said Theo Sawa, who was director of the African Women's Development Fund for a number of years. "And in a world that doesn't want to recognize that African women have voices, you were prepared to lend us your voice when no one would listen to ours."

Away from the spotlight, Stephen Lewis has touched the lives of so many. For example, when my partner was dying he often sent me kind notes of encouragement. These are just a few of my recollections from making documentaries about a man who is very modest, especially about his achievements.

I join the throngs of those who call him "Canada's great humanitarian," "hero" and "a national treasure."

Judy Jackson has made over 100 films about human rights and social justice in many countries. They've won many prizes, but the ones that make her happiest are those which bring ripples of change.

Image credit: Judy Jackson. Used with permission.

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