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Making the Connections Between Canada and Africa

Stephen Lewis draws a line. First in a week-long series.

Chris Tenove 7 Nov

Chris Tenove is a journalist and broadcaster based in Vancouver. He writes for magazines such as The Walrus, Canadian Geographic, Reader’s Digest, and Maclean’s, and produces radio documentaries for CBC and the Radio Netherlands World Service. He is a contributing editor for The Tyee. For more information, see

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Stephen Lewis leaned forward in one of the red leather chairs in the bar of the Hotel Vancouver. Around him there were marble statuettes and self-satisfied hotel guests, the clink of glasses and the hiss of an espresso machine. Lewis was in the luxurious heart of what The Economist had recently, once again dubbed "the most livable city in the world," and he was here to talk about the moral failure of the world's most privileged people.

"I don't understand it," said Lewis, 67, who often speaks through a tight smile when he describes something galling or incomprehensible. "Why is there any resistance to plunging in and attempting to save millions of peoples' lives? We have the drugs, so why are we still losing them? It completely bewilders me."

As the United Nations' special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, it is Lewis' job to focus our attention on the viral pandemic that blazes across much of the continent. He points out the repercussions of the epidemic: the decimation of an entire generation of young adults, the orphaning of tens of thousands of children and the sabotage of Africa's attempts to lift itself out of poverty, insecurity and underdevelopment.

And he also exposes our own complicity in the crisis.

'I have spent four years watching people die'

On October 18th, Lewis delivered his first Massey Lecture at UBC's Chan Centre, the first stop on a five-city tour across Canada. The lectures, which address the wider context of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, will be broadcast on CBC Radio starting tonight at nine, and they are collected in the book Race Against Time, published by House of Anansi Press. They start with a short, brutal declaration: "I have spent the last four years watching people die."

At the Hotel Vancouver, Lewis added, "What makes it so unbearably frustrating is that these deaths are not necessary. We can do something about them."

Here at The Tyee, we decided to use Stephen Lewis' message as a provocation to run a week-long series on Africa called "Making the Connections." We spoke with international luminaries -- such as the American economist Jeffrey Sachs -- and with British Columbians born in Africa, including Senator Mobina Jaffer and SFU Student President Clement Apaak. We have a dispatch from a BC aid worker in Kenya and from a Vancouverite looking back at her homeland in conflict-torn Uganda.

For people motivated to take action, we have collected suggestions for a feature titled "What We Can Do" which we will run tomorrow -- and we eagerly anticipate more suggestions from readers.

Because, as Lewis points out, publicity and action can be two very different things.

Rock star self-hypnosis

If spectacle was a guarantee of success, then the G8 and Live 8 events this July should have been a turning point for Africa. Rock stars like Bono and Bob Geldof harangued politicians and gave benefit concerts in the run-up to the G8 conference in Gleneagles, Scotland. The leaders, led by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, emerged from their huddle and faced the world with earnest expressions and glowing promises.

Was their performance spin or substance? The first big test came just two months later, says Lewis. In September, the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, chaired a conference to secure funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Annan announced that this vital initiative would require $7.1 billion by the end of 2007. But pledges only came to $3.7 billion. "It was a shock to everyone to realize that the extravagance, the rhetorical hyperbole of Gleneagles, meant very little," said Lewis. "When Bob Geldof gave the leaders a 'ten out of ten,' he was engaging in self-hypnosis."

Lewis also has strong words for Paul Martin. Despite the Canadian Prime Minister's public contention that foreign aid levels should reach 0.7 percent of GNP - the widely accepted target set by Canada's Lester B. Pearson - Martin's own government hasn't come close. We currently sit at about 0.26 percent of GNP and Martin hasn't set yearly benchmarks to get us to 0.7 percent. "If there are no benchmarks, then the government can defer the increase in aid to the next year, or to the year after that and then what happens if we have a new government by that time?" says Lewis. "The problem is not a lack of public support. Canadians are very solidly behind this. It is a failure of political will."

Africa in our living rooms

But it is hard to become engaged with numbers. How does one conceptualize millions of preventable deaths or billions of dollars in international development funding? More concrete than the numbers are the images we see of Africa -- and these, too, tend to contribute to our estrangement and passivity, says Robert Semeniuk, a documentary photographer who lives on Bowen Island.

"What we get are pictures of starving African kids with flies crawling over their mouths -- and then you flip the channel and there's a hockey game, flip again and there's a war, flip again and it's an advertisement," said Semeniuk "It's no wonder we can't differentiate."

For his latest project, Semeniuk spent several months living with the San people of Botswana, who have been displaced from their traditional territory, The Central Kalahari Game Reserve. (The Tyee ran some of Semeniuk's pictures in July). He hopes that his photographs will help his audience get to know some of the San as individuals, rather than as statistics or decontextualized images of suffering. "Real progress can be made if we invite Africa into our living rooms," says Semeniuk. Or Africas. "The biggest problem is that Canadians still tend to say there is an Africa," says Clement Apaak, a Ghanaian graduate student who is the president of the SFU student society and the founder of Canadian Students for Darfur. Unless we see Africa's diversity, warns Apaak, then we will miss opportunities to build on - and learn from - its strengths.

Vancouver's twin city

If Vancouver is a city that works, then Freetown -- the capital of Sierra Leone -- is its dysfunctional twin. The two cities share a physical resemblance: Freetown is nestled between steep, forested hills and the shimmering waters of the Atlantic Ocean. At night, this city of 1.2 million is lit by moonlight and candles, not because Sierra Leoneans are hopeless romantics but because of the decrepit power grid. During the day, the city's defects are obvious: shantytowns of desperate poverty, vegetables grown in the garbage dump to supplement meager diets and beggars with limbs hacked off during the recent civil war.

There are also hundreds of international development workers bouncing around the pitted roads in their gleaming white Land Rovers. Tens of millions of dollars in aid money have been poured into Sierra Leone in recent years. Many of the programs seem to leave little trace, but there are noticeable gains: relatively peaceful elections, a crackdown on "blood diamonds", the creation of an anti-corruption commission, the slow rejuvenation of the school system and some elements of the civil service.

But most promising, perhaps, are people like Peter Karoma. His organization, funded by foreign aid and private donations, runs orphanages and programs for street children in Sierra Leone. More importantly, the end of war and the increase in international attention gave him hope that his country could address some of its longstanding problems. He ran as an independent candidate in this year's local elections and won a seat on the district counsel. "We Sierra Leoneans need to take charge of our future," he said. "But we also worry that something will happen, maybe another Iraq war or a tsunami and the world will look away again."

Paying attention

For Karoma, and for many people involved in development in Africa, the high-profile disasters this year have caused a double pain. The tsunami, the earthquake in Pakistan, the hurricane in Louisiana - not to mention the war in Iraq - are tragedies worthy of compassion and action, but they are also distractions from an even more colossal loss of life in Africa.

People like Stephen Lewis suggest that to make real progress, Africa needs more than fitful bursts of attention and extravagant gestures that are soon undermined or forgotten. It needs generous but hardheaded support. It needs partnerships rather than dictums. And it needs sustained attention, especially from places like the most livable city in the world.

Chris Tenove is a journalist and broadcaster based in Vancouver and a frequent correspondent on foreign affairs for Radio Netherlands, CBC Radio and magazines such as Macleans' and The Walrus.

Thanks to Tides Canada Foundation for sponsoring our Making the Connections series. Tides Canada is a national public foundation that offers professional giving services to donors who share a concern for social justice and environmental issues - locally, nationally and internationally.


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