African-produced film on AIDS premiers in Toronto

By Lincoln DePradine

Ugandan and South African visitors with SLF program officer Njavwa Mukwavi (standing, 4th from left) and other Toronto residents at the discussion and film screening of, “Youth Championing Youth’’

The world’s attention was riveted on the AIDS epidemic and the HIV virus in the 1980s. Further global spotlight was grabbed in 1991 when Earvin “Magic’’ John, the basketball superstar of the Los Angeles Lakers, retired abruptly after announcing that he had contracted HIV.

It’s been 28 years since Johnson’s announcement and AIDS and HIV do not dominate the public spotlight as they did three decades ago. But, healthcare workers and activists say AIDS and HIV are still widespread, especially among children and adolescents on the African continent.

“If you look at HIV and AIDS, if we don’t put a cap on it now, even the rich would suffer the same the way the poor are suffering,’’ Ugandan national Joseph Nkurunziza told the Caribbean Camera.

He was among a group of Ugandans and South Africans who were invited to Toronto by the Stephen Lewis Foundation (SLF) for the launch and premier screening of, “Youth Championing Youth”.

The 20-minute documentary, produced by African filmmakers with SLF financing, features youth leaders working to prevent and treat HIV and AIDS in Uganda and South Africa. Some of the workers themselves are HIV- and AIDS-infected.

Among the places visited by the filmmakers was St Francis Healthcare Services in Uganda, where Nkurunziza is director of programs.

A discussion, with the visiting Ugandans and South Africans, accompanied the film screening at Black Creek Community Health Centre (BCCHC) in North York and included representatives from SLF and the African Heritage Educators’ Network (AHEN), which helped organize the evening’s program.

“This film should go a long way in raising awareness and promoting ongoing and future campaigns to support the work of the various groups,’’ said AHEN’s co-chair Cecil Peters.

The message of the film is “that there is hope for those who are affected by HIV and AIDS to live happy and healthy lives’’, said Njavwa Mukwavi, program officer at the Stephen Lewis Foundation. “There is no need for stigma against them; they’re just like everyone else. There is still space for us to eliminate HIV and AIDS and still help support those that are living with the virus.’’

The SLF was established by former Ontario political opposition leader, Stephen Lewis, and his daughter Ilana Landsberg-Lewis, a labour and human rights lawyer, who also has worked with the United Nations Development Fund for Women.

As of June 2018, says the foundation, it has “committed and disbursed over $114.3 million’’ in financing for more than 1800 initiatives and partnered with some 325 “community-based organizations in the 15 African countries hardest hit by the global AIDS pandemic’’.

“The unique approach that we have at the foundation is that we don’t tell the partners what to do with their work,’’ said Mukwavi, the Zambian-born SLF officer, who has a Master’s degree in globalization from McMaster University. “They communicate to us what their needs are on the ground and we provide funding and support to them. The Africans are experts in their own context and all we do is provide funding and support for them.’’

The idea for “Youth Championing Youth”, said Mukwavi, was developed after a 2018 SLF meeting with some of its partners in Africa.

“We discovered that there was a need for them to showcase, on film, the work that they’re doing. So, we selected five of them and provided funding for them,’’ said Mukwavi. “We really value the work that they do and we really appreciate them. It’s great for their voices to be heard on this side of the world as well.’’

Nkurunziza said the visiting team is using their stay in Toronto not only to talk about their work with HIV and AIDS in Africa, but also to learn from Toronto agencies like BCCHC and the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention.

“We’re looking at what their approaches are, as compared to what we do back home and to see what synergies there may be,’’ he said.

 “Our film is to show how strong communities are and how powerful the youth are in fighting the HIV pandemic and what are some of the ideas that they have to help other youth.’’

The Toronto event at BCCHC was held just ahead of World AIDS Day that was commemorated on December 1. In a message marking the day, UN secretary-general António Guterres reported that while “a record 38 million people are living with HIV, resources for the response to the epidemic declined by $1 billion last year’’.

He suggested that “more than ever, we need to harness the role of community-led organizations that advocate for their peers, deliver HIV services, defend human rights and provide support. Where communities are engaged, we see change happen. We see investment lead to results. And we see equality, respect and dignity’’.