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Lions Roar : March 2006
"We take them to market and sell them," they say. "That's the income-generating part of the project." Then Lewis asks, "What do you do with the income?" The leader of the women says, "We buy coffins, of course, Mr. Lewis. We never have enough coffins.'" Sitting in his Toronto living room, Stephen Lewis says wea- rily, "That's just a few months ago. That's not 1990. They're still saying we don't have enough coffins in 2005. And every time you go to Africa, it's so..." he whispers the word".. .jolt- ing. Always the same thing: death, death, death, and struggle." Of the 41 million infected with AIDS globally, 26 million live in Africa and more than three million of them were newly infected in 2004, the latest year for which statistics are avail- able. Nearly two and a half million Africans died from AIDS in 2004, just as millions more will die before the wealthy world buys them treatment. There are 14 million African children orphaned by AIDS. There are villages across Africa where young women in their twenties and thirties have ceased to ex- ist. There are the children who themselves have died by the millions because, until the swift, decisive intervention of the Clinton Foundation a few months ago, no pediatric treatment formulation existed. Stephen Lewis has become the world's advocate for swift, decisive intervention in the pandemic, the exemplar of the It also explains why Lewis, a scion of Canada's preeminent left-wing political family, having upset so many governments and important people, now finds himself threatened with be- ing fired (the u.S. State Department went after him with a vengeance in the fall), a satisfaction he may deny his critics by quitting. Nothing, he says, is fixed, but it is on his mind to resign at the conclusion of next year's biennial global AIDS summit, to be held in Toronto. He says he is "running out of steam." He wonders about his continuing effectiveness. He talks about crying too easily on public platforms, and lying awake at night with images of death and dying on his mind. He says he is apprehensive now about going to Africa, "know- ing what I'm going to encounter. You meet people with AIDS, you make friendships.. .and then you come back six months later and they're gone." He says he is tired. "I've often thought to myself," Lewis says, "that it's possible that you need a sturdier emotional psyche than I have. I mean, you know, I just can't take what I see on the ground. I just can- not take it. I am only one person. "But I defy anybody to be able to take it over the long term, because-" and he pronounces each word with leaden slowness "-it is all so unnecessary. And I just can't break through." He slumps in his armchair with the body language of defeat. Out- side, in the leafy, quiet neighborhood where he lives with his wife, "It's possible that you need a sturdier emotional psyche than I have," Lewis says. "I just can't take what I see on the ground. And it is all so preventable." moral international statesman who speaks out, stripping rhet- 0ric from fact. He is the eloquent orator and formidable for- mer politician who has brought his heart and skills to Africa's defense. The cabbage-patch story captures his despair. It captures his anger. It explains why he has broken all the protocols of blandness meant to govern the tongues of UN bureaucrats. It explains why he has publicly and angrily criticized the U.S. administration and several African governments by name, trashed the policies of the World Bank and International Mon- etary Fund, acidly accused the wealthy Group of Eight nations of miserliness and hypocrisy, blown off the razzle-dazzle rhet- 0ric of rock-star activist Bob Geldof as so much flatulence, and verbally lashed some of the UN's top executives (includ- ing his friend of twenty years, Secretary-General Kofi Annan, again by name) for being duplicitous and do-nothing while the HIV/AIDS pandemic, now in its twenty-fifth year, relent- lessly destroys much of sub-Saharan African society. 66 SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2006 journalist and social activist Michele Landsberg, gardeners are tidying the lawns and shrubs and flower beds for winter while late-model European cars purr softly along the street. Inside his house, Stephen Lewis's mind is half the planet away, immersed in the plague that he says he cannot make the world focus on. "One out of every three children in Zambia will be orphaned by AIDS by the year 2010. How do you adjust to that?" he asks. "Zambia has a life expectancy that goes right back to the industrial revolution in the United Kingdom in 1840. You're born in Zambia today and you will live to 30 on average, and I don't know how to convey these things. I do the best I can on platforms, but I don't know how to connect-unless you tell some stories, unless you tell anecdotes that are so vivid that they live in the mind, and people then understand." AND SO HE TELLS STORIES. First, always, there are stories about women. Stephen Lewis seldom strays far from stories about women. They bear the brunt of the pandemic, he says; the AIDS assault on women has no precedent in history.