The Stephen Lewis Rave

Let me ask you something, how often does a person get a chance to meet one of their heroes in person? And I don't mean a hero in the Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, Wayne Gretzky, or Pele vein either. I mean a real, inspirational, clearly-making-the-world-a-whole-lot-better sort of hero. Someone without whom many more people would be suffering or even dying. I'm talking about a hero like Stephen Lewis.

Well, last Thursday I went into Vancouver to see the premiere of my sister Liz Marshall's new film for the Stephen Lewis Foundation, "Women: The Face of AIDS", and it was there that I got to actually meet Stephen. And I've got to tell you it was quite the honor... so much so that I forgot my own name. Ok, so I didn't really forget it, but I did introduce myself as "Liz's brother", which is hardly a name to be reckoned with. He said "Hi Liz's brother. Do you have a name?" which is when I realized that, in fact, I did and so I told him what it was. But hey, forgetting to mention your name when introducing yourself to someone like Stephen Lewis can be forgiven, right? I mean, when faced with such greatness you sometimes simply forget certain details you'd otherwise normally remember. Like your name.

And, if you ask me, Stephen Lewis is, without a doubt, one of the greatest Canadians ever and certainly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, living today. Forget about jokers like Don Cherry, this is the guy bringing loads of good to this oh so bad and sad world, like any hero would and should. The Neil Youngs and Joni Mitchells and Wayne Gretzkys and Mario Lemieuxs definitely bring the inspiring entertainment, which we all need as well of course, but it's people like Stephen who bring the passion and compassion and, most importantly, the results on the ground when it comes to making the world a better place. And in a world of "Transformers", Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and mass amnesia and blissful ignorance when it comes to the horrific suffering going on right now in Africa, there's simply no denying we all need a whole lot more Stephen. Like the old song says, what the world needs now is... more Stephen Lewis.

And for those of you who don't know who Stephen Lewis is or what he does, well, he's the former Canadian ambassador to the U.N., former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, and, in the work that has come to define his life and career today, the former UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. As a diplomat he was, of course, expected to speak diplomatically (i.e. completely lacking in passion or purpose, in a manner that would upset no one and would subsequently be ignored by all). But, hey, that's simply not Stephen Lewis, so, in the role of special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, he said screw all that diplomatic shit and instead spoke up and spoke out.

The man is full of passion and, unlike so many others, he clearly sees the millions dying in Africa as human beings, not just figures, numbers and statistics. And, so, as special envoy from 2001 until the end of 2006, and in the face of apathy and indifference, he spoke up and in doing so clearly pissed off certain countries by telling the world about their often criminal inaction - inaction that was costing real human beings their very real lives by the millions. This, surprise surprise, caused some controversy and, crucially, attracted media attention away from Britney, Paris and their ilk for at least a few short moments here and there and raised the long-forgotten issue so it could be heard again, if only briefly, in the Western media. This was no small feat when you consider just how great the indifference is here in the West to the suffering in Africa.

Anyhow, a few years back Stephen started his Foundation - - and then last year my sister, Liz, a documentary filmmaker who had already done some amazing work in Africa and elsewhere for groups such as WarChild, was hired to direct the documentaries and promotional work the Foundation wanted and needed to get its message out to a larger audience.

After spending 6 weeks in 6 different countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa last year, Liz returned home to start putting all that footage together into 3 amazing half hour docs: "Grandmothers: The Unsung Heroes of Africa", "A Generation of Orphans" and now this newest one, "Women: The Face of AIDS". Simply put, these 3 films are incredible. I loved the first two as well, but this one, on Thursday night at the huge Ridge Theater in Vancouver, was the first one I had seen on the big screen in a packed theater. To see it up there on the giant screen and to see the reaction of the crowd, with people crying and sighing, etc, really made me proud of that sister of mine.

Some of you might think I'm just saying all this because Liz is my sister, but I'm not. We're talking about some really powerful documentary work here. The point of the films, clearly, is to make you care for the people, to put a human face on this tragedy that is ravaging Africa, and to show the great grassroots work the Foundation is supporting throughout the continent. And these films are completely successful in doing that.

Liz also took some wonderful still photography over there, by the way, and the magazine The Walrus is now featuring a photo essay of hers online. Here's the link to her website, where you can click on the link to the feature in The Walrus:

Back at the theater Thursday night, Stephen took the stage to get things rolling and, as always, he spoke out and spoke up loud and clear, straight and direct, no matter how uncomfortable it may have made some people to hear certain facts. He began his introduction to the film by launching into an impassioned speech about the horrific campaign of rapes and genital mutilation that's been going on in the Congo. And, let me tell you, the man is a powerful speaker. If you don't care after hearing him get all impassioned about something, then I'm guessing you're probably already dead, or at least in a coma.

But it's not all just passion and righteous indignation, he also uses a lot of humor as well. I think that's a large part of his success as a speaker. When you're talking about such heavy, often depressing topics, it's really important to occasionally lighten the mood with a joke or two and he not only does that, he often comes across as a stand-up comedian. It may sound inappropriate to be cracking jokes when you're talking about AIDS, death and suffering, but I guarantee you he pulls it off perfectly. He's that good! Ok, hero worship like this may make some of you a little queasy and uncomfortable, but, hey, what can I say, every word is true.

However, the night was not only amazing simply due to Stephen's speeches and Liz's incredible film. No, the whole thing was raised to another level by the presence of 5 women activists from Africa, most, if not all, of them HIV positive. And, like Stephen, these women knew how to hold an audience's attention with powerful speeches, passionately told stories, and great jokes... and even, to finish things up, a little dance at the end of the night too. Anyone who was at all uncomfortable with a white Western man strongly criticizing the behavior of many black African men could feel at ease in knowing these black African women not only agreed, they said it even more forcefully. Then they'd crack a joke and bring the house down.

These women were not just funny and passionate, they were also extremely articulate as well. Well, all but shy 20-year-old Rose Nakanjako, who expressed herself with her grand dance finale instead. Aside from Rose, who has been HIV positive since she was 17, there was Inviolata Mmbwavi, an activist and politician from Kenya; Ida Mukuka from Zambia, a full-time activist for the Foundation in Africa; and Dr. Lydia Mungherera, an activist in Uganda. And, finally, there was Granny Princess, who has to be seen and heard to be believed. A wonderful woman. One of five wonderful women!

It really was quite the night. Heartbreaking stories, hilarious laughter, a bit of dancing, a great film, a really nice talk with Liz's friend Ky'ukusinga, who works for the Foundation in Toronto and who Liz spent those 6 weeks in Africa with last year... and a talk with Stephen Lewis himself. It was short though, my talk with Stephen, as everyone wanted to talk with him and he was clearly getting tired by the time I got to him and somehow forgot my own name. But, man, what a night!

I'll leave you with a quote from the great man himself:

"Gender inequality is driving the pandemic, and we will never subdue the gruesome force of AIDS until the rights of women become paramount in the struggle" - Stephen Lewis

Yeah, Stephen Lewis, now that's one name I'll never forget.

Mike Cowie (Oredakedo)
Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007


And read about Stephen's son, Avi, here: The CBC Rant: Avi Lewis and The Canadian Media In The Never-Ending Black Era of Conrad


And here: Avi Lewis' Funny Fundamentalists



Stephen Lewis

Right on, Mike. The man is truly a mensch, one of the best examples of the true Jewish humanitarian spirit in the world today. His sister Janet once told me that when they were teenagers just starting to date, their parents didn't care if their dates were Jewish or not ... but they had to be socialists. The Lewis family, from David Lewis through Stephen Lewis and Michelle Landsberg to Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein, and others, is Canada at its absolute best. They make the other fussy bureaucrats and timorous timeservers in this country look very tiny indeed.

David C.