The HIV crisis is not over. An estimated 39 million people worldwide live with HIV, and about 21 million of them are in treatment, meaning 18 million are still in need of treatment.

These facts are not lost on Stephen Lewis, a Canadian professor, activist, and former politician. He is passionate about advocating for more urgent and effective responses to HIV and AIDS. It began with his appointment as a United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. He travelled to the continent extensively between 2001 and 2006.

“It was deeply emotional,” Lewis recalls. “Countries felt like graveyards. People were dying in such numbers. It was absolutely heartbreaking, and I felt the paralyzed frustration of not being able to do anything about it because the drugs to treat them weren’t yet freely available.”

Stephen Lewis with Darlina Tyawana, Cwengi Myeni, and Zodwa Ndlovu, leaders of the Organizing Committee for the South Africa Grandmothers Gathering held in Durban, South Africa prior to the International AIDS Conference in July, 2016. Photo: Alexis Macdonald

Africa’s bravery in the face of adversity

In the midst of such misery, Lewis found something unexpected — hope. “You can’t help but be inspired by the tremendous resilience, the generosity of spirit, the solidarity, and the decency of the people at the grassroots level, particularly the women. They were determined to help each other, to overcome the virus, and to do everything they could to keep people alive.”

It was then that he decided, “I want to be a part of this. However small it may be, I want to contribute what I can.” There’s nothing small about what Lewis has accomplished through the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which deals with the nuts and bolts of programs on the ground, and AIDS-Free World (which he co-founded in 2007), an international advocacy group taking on controversial issues and pushing for policy change through government and legal channels.

Stephen Lewis walks with young children in Kenya. Photo by: Gillian Mathurin

While his Canada-based organization is devoted to providing assistance in Africa, support from other countries to tackle HIV/AIDS issues, especially in sub-Saharan regions, is dwindling. Lewis thinks he knows why. “There’s no question that the view of Africa in the rest of the world is still pretty intolerant,” he says. “There’s still an assumption to categorize Africans as people who are weak, vulnerable, and unproductive. Generally, it is seen as something you can discard, and it’s an entirely racist interpretation. This is a thriving continent with an enormous imaginative capacity and a lot of talent.”

Despite the various obstacles, Lewis remains focused on his goals: “All my life, I’ve felt that if you want to achieve a semblance of social justice, you just grit your teeth and you keep on fighting. You’re as tenacious as humanly possible and you never stop. Then one day, the pendulum swings and you get a startling moment of progress, and you realize it’s all been worthwhile.”