The anguish etched on the HIV/AIDS patients’ faces was painfully obvious to Marci Ien on her first visit to sub-Sahara Africa which is the pandemic’s epicentre.
She says that when she visited Sierra Leone in September 2008 on behalf of Journalists for Human Rights to help train media practitioners and lead workshops, she took the time to visit hospitals.
Despite their suffering, Ien could not understand how the patients were so positive and upbeat in light of the challenges they faced.
“The little children who were orphaned and the women who are the face of this pandemic had smiles on their faces,” recalled Ien, Canada AM Early Edition host. “I asked myself, ‘How could this be?’
“If they can find the strength to say I am going to fight this disease, then we have a responsibility with all the resources at our disposal to help to fight this scourge.”
Ien joined a cast of celebrities that included 14-time Grammy award winner Alicia Keys, singer and advocate Angelique Kidjo and world renowned musician, actor and social activist Harry Belafonte who donated their time and talent to last week’s Stephen Lewis Foundation Hope Rising concert to support Africa’s grassroots organizations which are fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
“This is a group of people who have come together because they have a common goal and a common purpose,” said Ien. “They are hands-on and most of them have foundations of their own. They really care and they are committed. It’s a privilege to be part of this group that is making such a huge difference and having their voices heard. As celebrities, their message of getting people to listen to a certain message is crucial.”
Over the past eight years, the Stephen Lewis Foundation has raised thousands of dollars that have funded nearly 700 initiatives with 300 community-based organizations in 15 countries.
Canadian talent shone brightly among the star-studded line-up of performers at the sold-out Sony Centre for the Performing Arts concert.
The list included Miss Black Ontario winners and performers Ngozi Paul, a Stephen Lewis Foundation “Because I am A Girl” campaign ambassador, Gloria Reuben, Lorraine Segato, K’Naan, Jully Black and Jamaican-born dub-poet and monodramatist d’bi young who splits time between Capetown, South Africa and London, England.
“I fundamentally believe that when you talk about revolution, change and transformation, it has to begin with the self,” said young, a two-time Dora Mavor Moore award winner and recipient of the K.M. Hunter Theatre and Toronto Mayor’s Arts Council awards. “Once you begin to do that, you are going to engage with community. So I am doing my part as a storyteller and looking at the change that I can effect within community.”
Reuben said her HIV/AIDS awareness was heightened after she played the role of health professional Jeanie Boulet who traumatically battled the deadly disease on the NBC Emmy award-winning drama TV series ER.
“That was many moons ago, but that was where this all started for me,” said Reuben, who lived in Los Angeles for 11 years before relocating to New York.
In August 2008, Reuben travelled to South Africa with Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation president and chief executive officer Pamela Barnes to tour key sites operated by the group.
The outspoken advocate for Black women living with HIV/AIDS said she was excited to be back in Toronto where she was born and raised.
“I have mixed feelings having been away for such a long time,” said Reuben, the sister of Canadian actor and TV host Denis Simpson who passed away last October. “It’s always a bit nostalgic when you go home to your birthplace. It’s nice to see friends who I have known for a long time and to be involved in a night like this.”
A former United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, Lewis has questioned the sincerity of celebrities engaging in development causes in Africa. He has however always maintained that Keys is genuine.
Eight years ago, she co-founded the “Keep A Child Alive” which is a grassroots movement that provides life-saving AIDS medicine and surrounding care to children and families living in Africa and India.
“I spend a lot of time observing celebrities and there is always a strong sense of self-aggrandizement and self-promotion,” said Lewis who is a Ryerson University Distinguished Visiting Professor. “With Alicia Keys, you get a tremendous engagement with the issue with no sense of self-promotion. Just a decent human being who cares deeply and uses the extraordinary profile she has to give it force in the world.”
Keys met Lewis through Leigh Blake who is the “Keep A Child Alive” founder and president.
“We connect because we are all doing the same work and we are fighting for the same cause,” said Keys.