Light and Dark in Africa

by Oakland Ross

They say that light rays puncture the heavens at 300 million metres per second - faster than anything else in existence. But Stephen Lewis has walked among the dead in Africa, and there the velocity of darkness far exceeds the shuffling pace of light.
Perhaps the laws of nature no longer apply in the region of the planet that stretches south of the Sahara Desert or perhaps the world makes no sense at all. For nearly five years, Lewis has toiled as the U.N. secretary-general's special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. Wielding the only weapons he owns - two eyes, one voice, one heart - he has struggled mightily to preserve the lives of millions of human beings on the world's poorest continent, and it remains a mystery to him why they are still being left to die.
"I've never understood it," he confesses. "Is there an underlying resistance to Africa?"
He avoids the term "racism," but that is evidently what he means.
How else to explain a quarter-century of mostly unnecessary carnage on a continent whose people want only what other people want - to be given this day, their daily bread, a modest succession of tomorrows, the chance to see their children thrive?
"And yet people are dying in indescribable numbers every single day."
By the time the sun sets tomorrow in Lusaka, Zambia - at 6: 06 p.m., South Africa Standard Time - more than 10,000 Africans who are alive right now will be alive no more, laid low by AIDS, a disease that has been reduced to a chronic but manageable condition in much of the world.
In Africa, the malady remains a death sentence on a colossal scale.
"The omnipresence of death gets to you," Lewis admits.
"You find it very hard to shake loose. I'm constantly ricocheting between hope and despair."
Just now, the drumbeat of one man's soul is sounding its contrapuntal rhythm on a damp, grey afternoon in mid-October in central Canada, for Lewis is temporarily out of Africa.
He is seated on the edge of a cream-coloured armchair in the living room of his Toronto home, his profile illuminated by a beaux-arts lamp and framed by a bay window that overlooks a wet autumn vista of maple trees and rain-slick pavement, a faint foretaste of the winter to come.
He has slipped off his navy-blue jacket, rolled up the sleeves of his white dress shirt, and loosened his tie, a red cravat adorned with images of youngsters with their arms upraised. His oversized eyeglasses went out of fashion more than a decade ago - something he is probably unaware of and wouldn't care about in any case.
He speaks with that precise, clipped diction, familiar by now to most Canadians and, increasingly, to people around the world. His wavy hair is greying a little, but he seems otherwise largely immune to the predations of age. That's lucky for him - and for many in Africa - because a less resilient constitution would not have endured what Lewis's frame has undergone in recent years.
"He does not exercise whatsoever," says Gerald Caplan, another left-leaning Ontarian with an abiding love for Africa. "He eats incredibly badly. But he seems impervious to normal wear and tear."
Meanwhile, the wear and tear continue.
Lewis is in Canada to deliver a series of public talks, the 2005 Massey Lectures. He will begin a five-city tour this Tuesday in Vancouver, working his way eastward to Toronto's Convocation Hall on Oct. 28.
His subject will be AIDS, of course. AIDS and Africa. AIDS and children. AIDS and women. AIDS and death.
In his five lectures - already collected in a book called Race Against Time, to be published by House of Anansi Press - Lewis will be deconstructing the so-called Millennium Development Goals, a five-year-old commitment by the rich on behalf of the poor to change the world fundamentally by the year 2015.
But it won't happen, says Lewis, certainly not in sub-Saharan Africa, where most people will remain poor and uneducated, where women will continue to suffer monstrous hardship and inequality, where the ranks of orphans will continue to swell, and where millions more will die of a treatable disease called AIDS.
That disease, and its ravages, has become the gravitational centre of Lewis's life. For five years, he has spoken of little else.
Perhaps, by now, some will have grown tired of hearing him expound upon the subject. Dear God, they might be thinking, but the man does go on. Will he never shut up?
The answer is no.
"Not for a second," says Lewis. "Absolutely not for a second. I don't want to diminish my outrage."
Consider for a moment this remarkable phenomenon, the outrage of Stephen Lewis - the genuine, undiminished and tenacious outrage of Stephen Lewis.
Almost anyone else in his place would have given up the fading ghost of their indignation long ago. They'd have grown old and tired. They'd have become numb to the sorrow and pain of other people, most of whom they do not know and never will, on a continent that seems very far away. They'd have retired to Florida and taken up golf.
But not Stephen Lewis, who is himself only a month shy of his 68th birthday - difficult though that is to believe.
He is no longer the young socialist firebrand of Ontario politics, a role he last performed nearly three decades ago as leader of the province's New Democratic Party. He is no longer former prime minister Brian Mulroney's surprising choice to serve as Canada's ambassador to the U.N. He is not a senior U.N. bureaucrat anymore, either.
He is not even young. He is, by most standards, old.
There is nothing in this Africa thing for Stephen Lewis, unless you count the saving of other people's lives as a personal benefit. He has no prospects for career advancement. He isn't looking for a raise.
And yet he carries on.
Since the year 2000, Lewis has been seeking to goad, browbeat, cajole and shame the major international donors of the world into confronting AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, the battlefield where the greatest number of lives are at stake, by far.
He has tramped through slums and villages, slogged across savannas, huddled in mud-and-wattle rondavels, haunted the corridors of overcrowded, badly equipped hospitals, buttonholed ministers, potentates and presidents. He has held press conferences, issued appeals, challenged the mighty, comforted the poor. He has begged and pleaded. He has broken down sometimes and cried.
And has he made a difference?
"Yes," he says. "I don't want to overstate the difference, but we have made incremental progress on resources and incremental progress on treatment."
Many individual Africans are alive today - tending a cooking fire, perhaps, or dandling their youngsters or chatting with friends - thanks in no small measure to a man they do not know.
That realization has got to raise a fellow's spirits, even on a gloomy afternoon in Toronto in mid-October - and it does.
Lewis relates the tale of a group of 16 children in a Zambian village whom he met one day in 2003. All of them had AIDS, all seriously ill, all bound to perish - unless someone located a supply of anti-retroviral medication, the only medicine that would save them.
And Lewis did.
"They were so incredibly appealing," he recalls now with pleasure. "A good many of them are still alive."
He has other happy stories to tell, chronicles of individual lives plucked from the maw of death that is slavering across Africa. Of course, no one knows better than Lewis himself that such tales are the rare exceptions, scattered rays of light in the prevailing darkness.
It is no surprise that most of Lewis's tales of Africa are cast in shadows - the dark interiors of rural huts, the gloomy wards of hospitals, the cramped confines of windowless rooms, places where human forms shift back and forth like phantoms, where mothers die while their children watch, the expressions on their young faces impossible to make out.
A few short years ago, such scenes were ghastly, yes, but sadly inevitable for there was little to do for Africans with AIDS but comfort the dying and bury the dead. Now, however, there are anti-retroviral drugs available to save them. The medicine has been configured in ways that work in Africa, at prices that make sense.
And yet huge numbers of Africans continue to die for lack of treatment, and tens of millions more are fated to follow, all decades before their time, leaving a continent-wide trail of orphans, gravestones and grief.
That hasn't changed, it isn't changing now, and there is no sign on the ruddy African horizon that it is going to change - not anytime soon.
"The fact that you can keep people alive makes it all the more enraging," says Lewis. "You know that there is no excuse for losing thousands of people everyday."
There is no excuse now, but when Lewis began his journey into darkness, most African leaders did not want to hear the word AIDS, and they certainly did not want to listen to this impassioned white man from Canada imploring them to face up to a scourge that seemed too overwhelming to bear.
That has certainly changed, and Lewis can likely claim a huge measure of the credit.
"He has forced a large part of the continent to the recognition of the disease," says Caplan. "Not single-handedly, but working with others, he created the will. But even he can't create the way."
Despite progress in many areas, the prospects for a solution to AIDS in Africa seem almost as elusive now as it did five years ago.
A vaccine against the disease is at least a decade away. Meanwhile, the world does not seem to be coming up with the money needed for prevention and treatment, not to mention all the other costs imposed by AIDS - the loss of skills, the loss of labour, the gutting of villages, the explosion of orphans.
"On the ground, where people live and die, it is still heartbreaking, every single day," says Lewis. "I can't get out of my mind the images of those who are dying needlessly."
And yet they continue to perish.
This past July, the leaders of the world's most powerful countries gathered in Gleneagles, Scotland, where they hammered together a combination of initiatives and promises aimed at giving a leg-up to Africa.
The men - all were men - emerged from their deliberations, beaming for the cameras and clapping each other on the back while, around the world, millions applauded.
Lewis wasn't among those who were cheering then, and he isn't cheering now. A certain political momentum may have been generated at Gleneagles, he says, but it has already dissipated.
He is outraged at this, but not surprised. After all, the wealthy nations of the world have been making and breaking promises to Africa for years.
Still, Lewis remains determined to carry on, fighting a battle that is winnable, maybe, but that maybe he cannot win, not in the world as it is, not on a continent where darkness stubbornly outstrips the speed of light.
"It's four and a half years," he says, "and I will admit I'm pretty emotionally frazzled and very angry. Perhaps too angry."
What he wants, he says, is to continue this struggle at least until there's a breakthrough, whatever form that breakthrough takes, however far off it may be. In other words, he wants to do this job until it's done.
"This has been something I never imagined in my life," says Lewis, as the grey light fades in southern Ontario and while most of Africa is cast in darkness.
"I so want it to end, for these lovely people who ache to live."

The Toronto Star, 16 October, 2005