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Stephen Lewis's lecture "Where in the World is the World Heading?" might just as well have been named "Why the Macdonald Campus should twin itself with the Zambian ministry of agriculture and food." Lewis is the special UN envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa and was the guest speaker for the recently celebrated Founder's Day at the Macdonald Campus.
Speaking to a capacity audience, Lewis described his observations, battles and heartbreaks over the past four years. He has seen hospitals, for instance, where there were four to five children per cot, all suffering from AIDS or AIDS-related malnutrition. "You hear the screams of women mourning their dead and you feel for a moment that the world has gone mad. You wonder how we in the international community could have allowed it to come to this."
"This, went on Lewis, is rates of infection in countries like Botswana and Swaziland where 40 percent of the population is infected with AIDS/HIV. "This" is a life expectancy that has dropped in the past 10 years from age 60 to age 37 in sub-Saharan Africa. "This" is families run by grandmothers or by older children because the people in the 16- to 49-year age range are either dead or too sick to look after their families. "This" is the refusal of governments or drug companies to make affordable the drugs that prolong the life of people infected with AIDS. "This" is a continent short of food in part because at least one-fifth of its agricultural workers are sick or dying.
At the same time, Lewis has seen reasons for having hope. Under the direction of James Morris, the American director of the UN's World Food Program, food distribution is earmarked in quantity and quality to vulnerable communities. Schools, home to many AIDS orphans, have food programs. "And in South Africa, at every food distribution site, there's drama, dance, singing and poetry - all vehicles of cultural expression to convey the message of prevention."
Lewis also noted that on a continent where many leaders deny the seriousness of the disease, he has seen leaders, like President Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia, take the issue of AIDS prevention seriously and, in the face of malnutrition, have the courage to refuse the offer of genetically modified wheat from Europe.
"Zambia was the only country in Africa that refused the GMO food aid, and the minister of agriculture told me that he went alone to fend off the arguments of the 10 from the European delegation," recounted Lewis. "When I asked him why he went alone, he said there were no others left in his ministry to accompany him. They were either sick or dead.
"Zambia needs people to fill in for all the missing people," he continued, launching a challenge to Macdonald Campus students and faculty to do just that, especially at this time, when the country is experiencing a "sort of miracle." After the famine of 2002-2003, the rains came to Zambia and the country is now "the breadbasket of the sub-region," noted Lewis.
"I met outside with Zambian women living with AIDS, and behind them was a vast cabbage patch; they were determined to grow the food to overcome the virus," he continued, underlying the fact that good nutrition for those infected with HIV/AIDS is essential for fending off the opportunistic infections.
But Zambians could do more with more human input, said Lewis. "They need your input for growing more food in an ecologically sustainable manner. They need help with the vitamin and protein supplements necessary to help people handle their immune problems.
"With your knowledge of the environment, agriculture and nutrition, you could collectively make an invaluable contribution."
It was a challenge that fit in well with the motto of the Macdonald Campus, chosen by the founder himself, Sir William Macdonald: "mastery for service." Macdonald, when he founded what was then Macdonald College in 1906, wanted it to serve as a means for rural people to earn an education, then serve others with their knowledge. As dean of the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Deborah Buszard said in her opening address, "Our mission is still to serve the needs of rural people, and half of the world's six billion people are rural with millions of them living with inadequate food and water."
In the aftermath of Lewis's talk, the Macdonald Campus has been considering Lewis's challenge. The campus already has its semester in Africa program, and three graduate students in nutrition, studying the question of AIDS and nutrition in Uganda and South Africa, have already launched the McGill Students HIV Interdisci-plinary Network.
Caroline Begg, professor of plant science and the person in charge of publicity for the Founder's Day events, was very happy both with the record turnout of close to 700 people, and with the stir Lewis created in the faculty. She and others on the Founder's Day Committee initially weren't sure about the choice of Lewis as guest speaker because they feared the students would not have heard of him. Determined to attract as many students as possible, she created a display on Lewis in the foyer of the main entranceway to the campus and sent emails to the campus clubs and organizations. Ultimately, the attendance was the highest in the past five years.
"We wanted someone who was doing something that students and staff could relate to," she said. "What Stephen Lewis did best was that he challenged the faculty as a whole to do something. It was a personal challenge."