- A Voice for Africa: Stephen Lewis and the Race Against Time
Those who, like me, have long wondered when, if ever, Canada will produce another international statesman and diplomat in the mould of Lester Pearson need wonder no more. In Stephen Lewis, the Canadian tradition of ground-breaking international statesmanship is assured. As the United Nations Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis has brought more than just his skills as a broadcaster, politician, and diplomat to his job. He has also brought his ideological convictions as a “democratic socialist,” his lifelong passion for Africa, and his tireless commitment to mobilizing global action against a pandemic that threatens the future of a continent. Named among Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2005, Lewis is one of North America’s most widely known commentators on human rights and international development.
Race Against Time is a compilation of Stephen Lewis’s 2005 Massey lectures. It opens with a line that jolts, alerting the reader to the seriousness of the subject: “I have spent the last four years watching people die” (2006, 1). What follows is a riveting excursion into the tragedy that is the AIDS pandemic and one man’s almost obsessive drive to do something about it. For those familiar with the discussion on AIDS, the central message of this book is a familiar one—the AIDS crisis in Africa has reached pandemic proportions and the global community needs to do more to redress its devastating impact on the continent. What makes this book unique, however, is the eloquence and passion with which Stephen Lewis delivers this message. It commands attention.
Lewis writes with the same energy and lucidity that we have come to expect of his public speeches. The anecdotes and biographical excursions that spice the book make it a compelling read. The narrative of Lewis’s long-standing “love affair” with Africa is particularly intriguing. It takes us on a journey across Africa, from his experiences as an idealistic youth teaching in the newly independent state of Ghana in the 1960s to his fraternization with South African anti-apartheid activists, which led to his ban from that country by its white minority regime. [End Page 212] The Africa that Lewis encountered in the 1960s was one of promise and vitality, much different from the one he sees today. It is heartbreaking, he writes, “to see the Africa I once knew reduced to such desperation” (60). Although we may have become used to images of a desperate Africa, Lewis contends that this is different: “The AIDS crisis in Africa is a different, but analogous holocaust” (107), a holocaust fuelled by poverty, ignorance, and apathy.
The statistics are familiar yet remain depressingly mind-boggling. In Zambia, 23% of all children are AIDS orphans; in Swaziland, 15% of the children will be orphans by 2010; and in Botswana, 35% of the entire adult population is HIV-positive. Even more troubling is the fact that, across the continent, hundreds die daily because they have no access to antiretroviral drugs needed to keep them alive. These alarming figures, Lewis argues, point to the collective failure of humanity. He is critical of the apathy of rich Western nations but also the “wilful inertia and outright irresponsibility” at work in the United Nations system that have hindered international action on tackling the pandemic (xi). It is inexcusable that lifesaving anti-HIV drugs that can stem the tide of deaths and prevent mother-to-child transmission of the virus are still not available to those who need them most in Africa. We now have the drugs to control if not cure the disease. AIDS need no longer be a death sentence for mothers or their unborn children, yet in sub-Saharan Africa only 5-8% of pregnant women have access to these drugs.
Race Against Time is not just a book about AIDS. It is also a treatise on the gaping inequalities and inequities of our world. Unlike some other...