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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 6, April 2006

Stephen Lewis moves teachers to tears with tales of African children yearning for an education

by Nancy Knickerbocker

Many teachers at the AGM openly wept to hear Stephen Lewis, the United Nations special envoy to Africa, speak of the annihilation of whole societies by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

"I have no words to convey to you the carnage of this pandemic," said Lewis.

Still, his eloquence and passion clearly conveyed the urgent need to take action to assist the children, parents, and grandparents struggling to survive despite the comprehensive devastation of families and communities.

Lewis saluted the work of the BCTF in international solidarity and global education, emphasizing that everywhere he travels in Africa, children are yearning for an education.

"No matter how calamitous their circumstances, when you ask these children what we can do to help they always say, ‘We just want to go to school.’ Even though their entire childhood has been destroyed and their psyches mangled, they want to be in school," Lewis said.

He cited examples from Uganda, where "crazed" military operatives forcibly recruited boys to become soldiers and girls to become sex slaves; from Sierra Leone, where a "grotesque regime" of rebels amputated the arms of children to terrorize the population; from Rwanda, where children witnessed atrocious scenes of genocide. In all cases, the children pointed to school as the source of hope and healing.

"After the Taliban were defeated in Afghanistan, who could forget the images of little girls marching to school, their faces radiant with excitement?" he asked.

Now, as he travels throughout Africa, Lewis is struck time and again by the heroism, intelligence, sophistication, and courage of the people, especially the women, facing the HIV/AIDS pandemic. He said political leaders from Botswana, Namibia, and Lesotho have used words like "extermination," "annihilation," and "holocaust" to describe its impact on their countries.

Lewis described visiting an elementary school in Harare, where Grade 5 students were having a life skills class on AIDS prevention. When the teacher asked the children what worried them most, eight out of ten said "death."

Deaths of parents, other loved ones, teachers, and community leaders have left a generation of children without adults to care for them. At least 14 million children have been orphaned by AIDS, and that number is expected to rise by an additional four million in the foreseeable future, he said.

Lewis decried the structural adjustment plans imposed on many developing countries by the World Bank because they limit children’s access to education and other vital public services. Schools that used to offer free education and lunch programs now have course fees, uniform fees, and even parent fees, thus closing the door to children of impoverished families.

"School fees are a manifestation of globalization," Lewis said. "When all kinds of kids can’t go to school because of user fees, it does irreparable damage. There’s just too much inequity in this world."

Lewis spoke passionately of the immense trauma suffered by young African children who watch their mothers die in anguish for lack of anti-retroviral drugs or even the most rudimentary painkillers.

"How do you deal with the trauma? How do you repair those young psyches?" he asked. "When there is nowhere else to turn to overcome the desecration of the child’s life, it’s the teachers who become the therapists."

He recounted visiting a primary school of 350 students where 251 were orphans. "How do teachers summon the inner resources to handle that? How do we convey to the teachers of Africa that we want to respond?"

Lewis again praised the BCTF for its work in Africa, saying: "When you work with the teachers’ unions, you are refurbishing the strength and dignity of your colleagues as they struggle with these incalculable affronts to the human condition."

Most of all, though, he praised the "magnificent" grandmothers of Africa, who must bury their own adult children and then care for their grieving orphaned grandchildren.

He urged BCTF members to "take the issues, no matter how complex, into their classrooms. By allowing young minds to grope with them, you are allowing the global citizens to emerge."

His voice thundering with outrage, Lewis reported that in 2005 global spending on armaments exceeded $1 trillion. "Yet we cannot find a microscopic smidgen of that amount to rescue the human condition. You have to ask yourselves what has happened to the world’s moral anchor. We have to do what we can to find it, and reassert it."

The 700 teachers in the audience leapt to their feet in a rousing standing ovation, and later passed a motion that the BCTF match their individual donations to the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign. By the end of the meeting $7,809 had been donated, which will be matched by the Federation.

For more information, go to: stephenlewisfoundation.org

Nancy Knickerbocker is the BCTF media relations officer.

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