Lewis battles to elevate the politics of AIDS

TORONTO—Stephen Lewis was the superstar of the 16th International AIDS Conference, held August 13 to 18 in Toronto. He was everywhere, delivering dunning indictments of South Africa's guilt over paltry HIV treatment, shaming our prime minister for choosing the Arctic over the 25,000 or so delegates, appearing with celebrities like Bill Clinton and Bill and Melinda Gates, and calling for safety from violence for women and children, a commitment to circumcision for African men, and meaningful debt reduction and development assistance from western countries. When the conference finally wrapped, Lewis—the UN's special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa until the end of the year—sat down with the Georgia Straight for a Sunday-afternoon tea in the tony Forest Hill neighbourhood north of downtown.

GEORGIA STRAIGHT: You must be tired today.

STEPHEN LEWIS: I didn't really note very carefully, to be honest, what I had committed myself to during the conference. I was just saying yes to those things that seemed interesting. And when the conference began, it suddenly was quite overwhelming, and it was preceded by the [Grandmothers to] Grandmothers Gathering, and it was huge. It was all-consuming for those three days [August 11 to 13]. In time and emotion. It was an extraordinary event, and I have a feeling it will translate into much larger international recognition of the predicaments of the grandmothers on the one hand and support for the grandmothers on the other.

I was thrilled by what happened. My older daughter had come to me a few moths ago – [Stephen Lewis Foundation executive director] Ilana Landsberg-Lewis - and said, ‘Dad, we're getting projects and constant reference to grandmothers. It needs examining. It's unusual. It's a much stronger voice than we've heard before. And we'd also noticed a couple of grandmothers' groups in Canada were beginning to form and we wanted relationships of grandmothers.

GS: Specifically around AIDS and public health? Not around public health in general?

SL: Really around AIDS, and it was around orphan grandchildren overwhelmingly. There was always among some of the groups [of grandmothers caring for AIDS orphans] an activist component, but overwhelming it was the simple, desperately difficult business of surviving and looking after orphan kids and overcoming the trauma and burying their own children. It was a situation fraught with tension and anxiety—so indicative of AIDS generally.

GS: How do you mean that?

SL: I mean that everything about AIDS is fraught with anxiety. But it was the neglected part of the terrain. Nobody was talking about it. We [at the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which funds community-based AIDS projects in Africa] talked a lot about orphans. But what stunned me, as we looked more closely at it: in a number of countries, 40 to 50 to 60 percent of the orphan kids were being looked after by grandmothers. So Ilana said we'd do a campaign for grandmothers to grandmothers. That's when we brought Adrienne Clarkson and Shirley Douglas together with two grandmothers from Johannesburg at a press conference. But we also felt that that was too superficial, too much focus on fundraising, and we wanted to make it substantial. So Ilana and her pals and colleagues at the foundation sat down and looked at something more substantial, and came up with the [Grandmothers to] Grandmothers Gathering, which - I don't know if you've seen the program, but I should give your the actual program; it will take your breath way. The grandmothers fin Africa dictated the whole agenda. That was our whole rationale. That for once the West would not dictate the agenda. It was theirs. And we would simply accommodate it. We made that clear to the Canadian grannies as well. So we brought over 100 grandmothers and their facilitators [from Africa]—people who could translate and travel from 33 villages.

GS: What happened to the kids?

SL: The kids were all being looked after carefully at home. All of that was carefully done ahead of time. And suddenly the number of Canadian groups went from seven to 50 overnight. so we brought representatives of the 50 groups to the conference.

GS: How do the Canadian grandmothers groups distribute across the country?

SL: Heavily Ontario. But British Columbia - everywhere from Nanaimo to Kamloops - Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Quebec. That's it. Maybe one group from Nova Scotia. But now they're starting it, I can see it's going to be right across the country.

GS: Is there a significant First Nations component?

SL: Yes, we had several aboriginal grandmothers. It was so interesting because in one or two of the sessions, the sense of identity between the aboriginal grandmothers and the African grandmothers was quite intense.

GS: In the matrilineal sense?

SL: Precisely. And in the sense of Third World environment. They were both telling this story about having a bundle of sticks and if you take out one you can break it. If you take out two, it's harder. If you take out three, you can't. Which shows the strength of numbers and solidarity. But that story, that anecdote, was common to African and common to aboriginal Canadians. It was so touching. The other thing we've done is taped the entire proceedings, even many of the breakout groups. We've got audio for absolutely everything, and we're transcribing for absolutely everything. So we will be able to have a complete document of everything that happened and get it to every single grandmothers' group in Africa and Canada. And we had filmmakers in Africa for several weeks before who produced a half-hour documentary to open the grandmothers' conference based on grandmothers who were there at the conference. And we had Angelique Kidjou at the opening and it was - really, I had very little to do with it.

GS: Is one of the hopes of the foundation to facilitate an expansion of this?

SL: Yes. And we're talking to Keep a Child Alive in the United States, which is Alicia Keys and Leigh Blake, who sort of runs it. Alicia is the intense and committed patron. And the Elton John AIDS Foundation in the U.K., because I had been there speaking in the fall before this happened at their fundraiser and they were interested. Elton John sent a taped video message, which is lovely. We played it on the Sunday morning, just to the grandmothers, and they were bowled over by it. The coverage—the New York Times, the [International] Herald Tribune—it's all over the world.

GS: Apart from it being inherently valuable, it does the end run around the normal newspaper fatigue, which is, How many different ways can you tell -

SL: Precisely. Because Micol Zarb [director of communications] joined us at an auspicious moment so she could organize all this on the communications front. Because we'd never had anyone do that for the foundation it made a big difference.So anyway, coming back from Zambia, my colleagues were doing the Ottawa Citizen [a special edition on AIDS], the foundation was doing the grandmothers, and, plunging into the conference, I will admit it was a bit much. Gerry Caplan [former NDP federal secretary, now a Canadian authority on the Rwanda genocide], with whom we work closely, was laughing and comparing it to an election campaign.

GS: I was at, among other things, the closing keynote address you gave at the International AIDS Conference. And there was, and I welcome it, in the delivery of your speech a speechifying passion, a fervour, that was responded to by the crowd in a very immediate—

SL: Yes, there was.

GS: —and intense way, and in that way too it was like an election campaign just before it breaks.

SL: I hadn't thought of the comparison. Most of my election points ended on an upswing rhetorically and on a downswing politically. I revvied up the troops on election day only tobe crushed on election night. But I'm used to that. I'm a socialist. I'm used to it.I was particularly pleased because of the obvious crowd support on the South African issue, which I really think is important, and on the women's issue, which for me is the most significant issue of all.

NEXT: South Africa