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Race Against Time

by Stephen Lewis

A chill grows in the air. The days shorten and naturally our thoughts turn to Christmas. Perhaps, like me, you’re thinking about what kind of gift to get the Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. After reading this book, you’ll probably agree Stephen Lewis deserves a little something.

So here’s an idea. Let’s all pitch in and buy him a very special megaphone, a new invention that would broadcast his message straight into the ears of Martin, Bush, Blair, Koizumi, and the rest of the G8 until not a single one of them is able to concentrate on scandal, war, and re-election until they’ve dealt with a more pressing problem – namely, the continent below Turkey. You might know the one I’m talking about.

Apologies for the understatement, but if one point comes through in Race Against Time, Lewis’s short set of Massey Lectures, it’s that Africa’s not doing so well these days. “Virtually every country in East and southern Africa,” Lewis writes, “is a nation of mourners.” AIDS has decimated these places, killed off almost an entire generation, and left villages of grandparents to care for the young. It’s not that AIDS is the only problem facing the continent, but it does place every other goal in jeopardy.

For now, this book is Lewis’s megaphone, and thankfully it comes with its own loud, persuasive tone. “I’ve been emotionally torn asunder by the onslaught of AIDS,” he writes. “I can’t deny it; it colours everything I believe and say.”

At age 67, Lewis is not, in his own words, “some sweet innocent,” and he knows there are problems with his boss, the United Nations. In a series of anecdotes, he unveils some of the pettiness of the institution, where squabbles over a single word (“colonialism” in one case) can jeopardize the hope of effecting any change. He may have harsh words, but people who care about the UN, he points out, have an “ethical responsibility” to point out its failings.

Still, to borrow from Donald Rumsfeld, you have to go into the world with the UN you’ve got, not the UN you’d like to have. Besides, asks Lewis, what other organization has the ability to effect change? He tears into the hollow goodwill of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. His attacks come from a different place than that of the armchair theorists, balanced between his own reactions to holding the hands of orphan children and the hard economic facts.

Those facts don’t look good. Here’s one that stands out: between 1970 and 2002, Africa amassed $294-billion of debt. In that same time it paid back $260-billion, but most of it in interest. Lewis has a term for this process: international economic obscenity.

He goes on from there. The G8 summit? An “orgy of self-congratulation.” The poaching of African doctors by Western nations? “Rancid behaviour.” (There are apparently more Malawian doctors in Manchester than Malawi.) He talks of African hospitals where there are no pharmacists, which means anti-retroviral drugs are dispensed by, well, whoever is around.

Statistics are good for flashing from a screen at Live 8, but Lewis’s eyewitness accounts are much more shocking. Just try to imagine, if you can, the sound of thousands upon thousands of aluminum coffins being wheeled away.

It’s not just lives that are being lost. It’s motherhood, too. In communities made entirely of grandparents, “the transfer of love and knowledge and values and experience from one generation to the next is gone.” In Uganda, Lewis asks a young girl who puts her to bed at night. “I put everyone to bed,” she replies.

Thankfully, unlike the G8 leaders, Lewis doesn’t embroider or massage facts into unreal optimism. Instead there are examples of young people striving to improve things. Education is the key, Lewis argues, and this comes in the form of getting rid of registration fees and getting kids into the schools. Better to deal with full schools and a lack of teachers than poverty, ignorance, and AIDS.

Lewis’s style, he admits in the foreword, is direct oration. There are not a lot of frills here. With some Massey Lectures I’ve wished for more length, more exploration of the core ideas, but Lewis’s direct address meshes perfectly with the message. We don’t need another paragraph framed with blooming hyacinths or rolling African plain. We need a voice that gets angry but never hysterical, that spells out the problems with so much heart that it’s hard to finish the book without wanting to seek out some way to get involved.

For the full effect, read the book in a public place and look around at everyone who is not dying in this country; notice how there isn’t a spectre of death lingering in our own public spaces, how legions of grandparents haven’t become parents. Consider that we could be as impassioned and pissed off as Stephen Lewis. That we could all read his book and act. Now that would be a real Christmas gift to a battered, hopeful continent.