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"[N]othing says that only Bono can go out there and perform." -- Adam, on his Vertigo tour ellipse solo walks


Tears Are Not Enough

Express on Sunday
On a hot, sunny morning in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, Eleanor, 35, a teacher, is sitting outside her small home talking to Bono, 42, a rock star. If it is a slightly surreal situation, there is a profound purpose behind it. Eleanor is dying, diagnosed HIV-positive seven years ago, but still teaching, in order to keep her daughters Mabel, Maureen and Margaret in school. Eleanor cannot afford the drugs to prevent her contracting full-blown AIDS and so, with her "memory book" on her lap, she shows Bono the photos, words and drawings which document her life...and help prepare her children for her death. Mabel, 16, will become responsible for her two younger sisters.

"I've got a headache today," explains Eleanor, who is one of the 30 million people in sub-Saharan Africa infected with HIV, "and a rash all over my body." Making matters worse, some of her friends have shunned her, fearful they too will catch AIDS, scared to be tested, knowing they cannot afford vaccine. Bono says: "Almost as bad as the disease is the stigmatisation that goes on around it. And to try to describe your life for your children, in print, because you are not going to be around to tell them, is something nobody should have to do."

Bono, of course, does not have medicines. He is the famous singer from the rich West, with a lifestyle which appears a million miles removed from Eleanor's. But he is not in Africa, as he puts it, "to be a tourist in someone else's tragedy." As a doting Mabel takes him on a tour of her village, joining him in singing and dancing with other villagers, trying to convince him that Ugandans really have heard of his band U2, he vows to take the message back to the U.S. and Europe: "It is not acceptable," he tells her, "that your mother does not have access to the drugs that will keep her alive."

Celebrity, which comes with being the singer in U2 -- for more than a decade the biggest rock band in the world -- is not an entirely useless commodity. If he does not have medicines, Bono has brought some other useful things with him on his second visit to Africa this year. One is a battery of TV cameras which will take the story of the African AIDS pandemic into the blinkered living rooms of the U.S. The other is Paul O'Neill. Paul Who? Paul O'Neill, silver-haired U.S. Treasury Secretary who holds the purse strings of the richest country in history. Today is World AIDS Day and as a special MTV documentary illustrates, Bono is in Africa to try to wake America up to a continent being ravaged by disease. "These people here say they can't afford the drugs to live," he explains. We say we can't afford to let them die."

Another day, another country and Bono, along with film star Chris Tucker, has joined parents and students at Addis Ketema High School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It is a rare class on "adolescent reproductive sexual health" that has everyone clapping and stamping their feet and the roof is nearly raised as Bono and Tucker, whose Rush Hour films grant him superstar status in Ethiopia, jump up to join in. A drama group present a play in Amharic -- the local language -- promoting sexual abstinence, fidelity and the importance of condoms. The word "sex" cannot be used -- the area is predominantly Muslim. "These people have been hit hard by war and famine and now by AIDS," reflects Bono. "Any of the above would knock a country out but they are fighting back."

But the fight cannot be conducted solely by the people of Africa he argues -- they have to be given more power to change their destiny by the richest countries, who must cut their debts, provide cheap drugs for those with HIV and promote a fairer trading environment. This is where Bono becomes lecturer. It might seem odd to find him later standing on a podium in Addis Ababa, addressing delegates at the 2002 Africa Development Bank meetings, but again there is a hidden synchronicity. It was in the mid-Eighties, the era of Live Aid and Band Aid, that the Irish singer first visited this country, arriving to work for a month with his wife for a relief agency. Today he explains to his audience that his understanding of the gap between the rich and the poor world has changed.

"Seventeen years ago, I came to Ethiopia on a wave of tears and compassion, flowing from the rich countries to the poor, from soccer stadiums taken over by musicians to refugee camps taken over by the starving people of Ethiopia. The brilliant Bob Geldof taught me the importance of being focused, angry, persistent. We raised $200 million, and we thought we'd cracked it. It was a great moment, it was a great feeling." But they hadn't cracked it. The poor world, it turned out, needed political change more than loose change. "I discovered," adds Bono, "that Africa spends $20 million every five days repaying old debts. Tears were obviously not enough."

It was the realisation that tears were not enough that put this 42-year-old musician and father of four on the campaign trail -- not fundraising for poor countries but fighting for change in the balance of global power. Over five years it has taken him inside the White House to lobby Bill Clinton and then George W. Bush, to addressing the U.N. in New York, to a private meeting with the Pope in Rome and several times to London for talks with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. But with this second visit to Africa this year, he has pulled off his biggest coup by persuading U.S. Treasury Secretary O'Neill to come with him.

Visiting villages, churches, schools and clinics in Ghana, South Africa, Uganda and Ethiopia, the pair are touched deeply by the spirit and energy of the people. If Bono is a household name in the West -- U2 are presently at No. 1 in the European album charts -- when it comes to Africa, he laughs: "People don't know that I'm in a band, they think I'm the 'drop the debt' guy." Which is fine, he adds, because it is in Africa, ravaged with poverty, crippled by AIDS, that he believes the real heroes are found -- not on magazine covers or concert stages. "Rock stars, film stars, hip hop stars, in the end we're just getting paid to do what we love -- we're not heroes, these people are heroes. They really inspire me."

In Uganda, where a successful campaign led to annual repayments to the West being reduced by a third, Bono can show O'Neill what a country can do -- given half a chance. Money has been poured into schools and healthcare -- there are now three times as many children in school as before and the country is even fighting back against AIDS. It is down to "heroes" such as Grace, Bono explains to O'Neill. She sings with a group which tours Kampala neighbourhoods raising awareness about sexual safety. A U.N. report published this week says more than 40 million people are now living with the disease and that it is killing three million a year. In Uganda, by contrast, the rate of infection has dropped from 13 percent in the early Nineties to six percent today.

When Bono first met Grace and her fellow AIDS educators in January, he was amazed. "I asked, 'Where do these women get their passion from?' I was told they're all HIV-positive themselves. I looked at them. They were singing with such great joy. I thought, 'How could this be?' Then I realized...these are the firemen running up the burning building. These are the heroes of the day. And they know, all of them, they're going to die because they can't afford the dollar a day it would take to keep them alive."

Walking through street markets and visiting small businesses, he describes the U.S. Treasury Secretary as a "'compassionate conservative," adding that he hopes he will turn the "compassion into cash." But this is not a campaign to simply get Western voters to "feel" for the plight of Africa. Using a new organisation he has helped found, DATA -- it stands for Debt, AIDS, Trade in Africa -- Bono is making a powerful pragmatic argument: that it is in the self-interest of the rich countries not to ignore Africa and consign it to AIDS and poverty. "We've seen what happens when people feel abandoned -- like the people of Afghanistan. And we know if we leave these people to their own devices, when we come back in five years they're going to throw rocks at us, not flowers."

Significantly, the DATA acronym works another way too -- Democracy, Accountability, Transparency in Africa -- underlining that, for example savings from cancelled debt repayments cannot be squandered by corrupt governments but must go into fighting poverty. Today Bono's campaign moves up another gear as he joins the American singer and actress Ashley Judd and AIDS activists on an American tour. This time it is not with his band, in the private jet, but on a week-long lecture tour to spread the word about how the richest country in the world can help the poorest continent. And, in Africa, he knows how to combat the cynics who say aid never reaches the people it is meant to. "Money is not going down a rat hole, " he says. "It is more likely to be going down a waterhole -- saving children. This is an investment. It's an investment we can't afford not to make, in the most valuable resource of all -- people."



© The Express on Sunday, 2002.