GUELPH — Happy, hopeful, curious and resourceful. They may not be the characteristics you would expect to find among the youth of a tiny African nation buckled by poverty and disease. But find them you will.
Stories of friendship, equality and mutual determination to change the world — perhaps not the storyline you would expect from a documentary film that hopes to inspire young Canadians to think about and assist a poor, AIDS-ravaged country in sub-Saharan Africa.
But the makers of Start With Us think a new, more accurate way of thinking about Africa, and more specifically about Lesotho, is exactly what is needed if we hope to work together as global citizens to make the world a healthier and more equitable place.
“I think we’ve been trained in some ways to perceive the developing world as almost helpless or hopeless,” said Abid Virani, the film’s principal director. “The real drive behind the film is to present a more honest interpretation of what this world is like.”
Virani, 21, is a University of Guelph international development student and co-founder and chief executive officer of the charitable organization I Have Hope In the Fight Against AIDS, formerly Student Reach International.
When 12 Ontario youth, most of them with Guelph connections, went on a humanitarian expedition to Lesotho earlier this year, they were accompanied by filmmakers. Hours of footage was captured of the Reach Lesotho trip and are now being woven into a roughly 45-minute documentary.
He said he hopes the film can reach as large a youth audience as possible.
“And the purpose of the film is to show a different image of the developing world,” he said. “And that image is fuller. It’s got more detail and it is being done so that our young people don’t feel guilted into being global citizens, but they are empowered and they are pumped up to be a global citizen, because that is exciting.”
Reach Lesotho, a program of I Have Hope, had as its central motive the building of bonds of friendship with the youth of Lesotho. The friendships that emerged during the trip are the subject of the film, which will have a private screening on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, for potential donors and film industry insiders at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre.
In the film, the Canadians participate in the day-to-day lives of their Basotho counterparts — fetching water with them, butchering chickens with them, working with them in their gardens and classrooms and, most importantly, talking with them; sharing hopes and aspirations, as friends do.
The youth from Canada and those from Lesotho realize they share much in common.
“What affected me the most was getting to know the people,” said Victoria Lockyer, 18, a Guelph CVI Grade 12 student who went on the trip, and is featured in the film. “Seeing pictures is not quite as effective as having a connection with somebody. That’s what makes you miss it the most.”
She said the sense of being “completely invited into the country” by the people was overwhelming. She was surprised and uplifted by how warm, affectionate and happy the Basotho were, despite the hardships they live with.
“I felt more at home there than I do here sometimes,” Lockyer said.
Virani and a team of about 14 others are pulling consecutive all-nighters and maxing out their credit cards to make a film they believe in. Co-director Jake Chirico and producer Prionnsias James Murphy sunk nearly $5,000 of their own money into quality video equipment for the trip, and more than $15,000 has gone into incorporating the film company and in post-production work.
Virani has not only sacrificed his financial resources, but has also had to neglect his academic career as the film took priority.
“A big part of I Have Hope,” he said, “is being a leader in the non-profit and charitable world by adopting new strategies and methods of engaging and inspiring people. Guilt is not empowering — it creates sympathy and does not create empathy. We are all part of this world, and our neighbours are everywhere.”
The gut punch, the guilt trip, the manipulating of heart strings, all of the elements we’ve come to expect from many humanitarian organizations and their public relations products, are not used in Start With Us.
Instead, it relies on themes and images of mutual friendship and equality between the Canadians and the youth of Lesotho, a tiny African nation entirely landlocked within South Africa, dirt poor, mountainous and stunningly beautiful.
With one of the highest incident rates of HIV/AIDS anywhere in the world, Lesotho is home to a human health disaster that seemed to be turning the corner, but which many fear could regress on news that the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is scaling back funding for HIV/AIDS treatment due to ongoing financial instability among donor countries.
Dr. Anne-Marie Zajdlik, a Guelph physician, HIV/AIDS specialist and longtime supporter of HIV/AIDS treatment programs in Lesotho through Bracelet of Hope, the charitable organization she founded, was with the Reach Lesotho project as a mentor, and accompanied the youth to Lesotho in the summer.
Young people in Canada are becoming more astute about the world’s problems and more eager to do something about them, she said in an interview.
“We have a lot of students from that generation who are like-minded in terms of wanting to make a difference in the Third World, and not wanting to jump on the corporate, materialistic bandwagon,” she said. “They are really looking at the world, and they have greater access to it through the internet and information technology. They are very troubled by what they see.”
Youth today are “carrying an extra burden, a global burden,” Zajdlik said. With an unprecedented number of crises afflicting the planet — economic, environmental, political, and in terms of human health — depression and hopelessness are common among young people, she indicated.
But concurrently, the determination of youth to make a difference is also a characteristic of this generation.
“I’m seeing a new kind of student, who has a purpose and a drive, a need to make a difference — a drive to really affect some change in a world that is in a pretty big mess,” she said.
This determination and desire for change, Zajdlik added, also runs through the younger generation in Lesotho. There, a revolutionary attitude is becoming pervasive and, with it, the resolve to overcome their problems on their own, perhaps initially supported by community partners in the developed world.
“A film that conveys those messages is very important at this time,” she said, “a film that takes us away from the belief that all the kids in Africa are starving and covered in flies, and have death all around them. This kind of film, which shows that equality, and shows the same drive and determination to make change, is very important.”
Lesotho is a tragic country. A place of indelible spirit, great beauty, and human warmth, it has one of the highest incidents of HIV/AIDS anywhere in the world. Nearly 24 per cent of the population is infected. About 14,000 citizens died of AIDS in 2009, and 130,000 children have been orphaned by the disease in the country.
Start With Us explores the AIDS epidemic through the stories of the Basotho youth, but the grim realities of the disease are not the thread that holds the film together. And AIDS only comes into the story later on, after the stories of friendships and shared humanity are first articulated.
“The images we often see on television or online are of desperation, disease and despair,” Virani said. “We know what these look like. If anything, we are getting tired of seeing these things.”
I Have Hope in the Fight Against AIDS is fighting against desperation, disease and despair — against AIDS. But what it is fighting for is as important, he explained.
“We’re fighting for people, for youth, for opportunity, for the potential they have,” Virani said.
“What we are trying to do is show that in this part of the world there are people, there is a culture, there is wonder and excitement about education, and there are incredibly hard-working people,” he said. “And then there is this big, overwhelming, overpowering thing that is unfortunately having a huge impact.”
Victoria Lockyer said she has high hopes for the documentary.
“I hope it is shown across Canada, and I hope it makes students, adults and everybody see that it’s really important for students and youth to believe that they can do something — not just sit back and watch others do something,” she said.