Monday, March 17, 2008

Sport Relief: Leona Lewis diary tells of heartbreak at African aids orphans

Leona Lewis is the girl with the world at her feet, multi-million pound deals and a future as one of our brightest singers.

But the 22-year-old X Factor beauty tells today how a heartbreaking visit to Johannesburg in South Africa with Sport Relief has changed her life.

Her new double A-side Footprints in the Sand/Better in Time is the official Sport Relief single.

And now she has seen for herself the devastation HIV and Aids wreaks on families, meeting starving orphans in filthy houses and talked to young domestic and sexual abuse victims.

Leona kept this heart-rending diary of her three-day trip to the continent where 11 million children have been orphaned by Aids and where 4,500 people die each day because of the disease...


Morning: We drove to a township where I visited Lethi Themba, a project caring for people infected and affected by HIV and Aids.

I'd prepared myself for an emotional time but when I arrived I was met by a sea of beaming faces of children dancing and singing to us. Seeing their joy but knowing the sadness and tragedy they face was overwhelming.

Lorraine, who is one of the carers, introduced me to children happily playing.

Immediately they were holding my hand and sitting on my lap and soon we were all hugging, singing and dancing together. They were so joyous and beautiful.

Knowing they were all orphans having lost one or both parents to Aids just about broke my heart.

The surrounding roads are dusty and dirty and the housing is abysmal - no windows, and drainpipes on the street leaking murky water. The conditions were far worse than I'd imagined. I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

I stayed, playing and laughing with these wonderful children.

They taught me African nursery rhymes - one was about Aids.

Of course, it's so important to raise awareness of the dangers but it was so sad to see such small children singing about something so serious.

Afternoon: I was invited to one of the children's homes. I took a package of food and gave it to the grandmother. It contained a bit of rice and a small amount of meat. Barely enough for one, never mind this family of five.

Gran welcomed me into the tiny house like I was one of the family.

It had three rooms, no inside toilet or anywhere to wash. It was total poverty.

The brothers and sisters had lost their mum to Aids a year before and were being looked after by their gran. I started to cry as she told me about the family's day-to-day struggle.

Tears rolled down her cheeks too.

There was something utterly devastating about an old lady breaking down like that.

She told me how she desperately missed her daughter.

The death has torn the family apart. And gran told me they sometimes go for days without food. She held my hand and said: "If it wasn't for the centre, we wouldn't eat today."

It was an emotional moment. And that poor woman always makes sure the children eat before her. If there isn't enough left, she goes hungry.

There was so much suffering yet so much courage. As well as being moved I was also inspired.

And if it wasn't for the fundraising of Sport Relief, many families would not survive.

Carers give skills, time and unconditional love to children and families devastated by this disease.

I hope people back home help in any way they can. It could be the difference between life and death for a lot of people.


Morning: I visited Tembise township, which has a centre where disadvantaged children can learn journalism skills.

I did a radio interview with two eight-year-old DJs. The set-up was good, with mics and computers. They were very articulate and spoke more than two languages.

They'd done their research on me and asked some great questions: What was it like to release an album? How did it feel to be number one? Why was I a vegetarian? And what is Simon Cowell really like?

That made me giggle!

This project shows with programmes like these, children's growth is unlimited and could take them into careers that they'd never have had prospects in.

Afternoon: I met a young girl called Nandipha. She was 13 and invited me to her home - in a tiny garage. I also met her grandmother who had recently lost her daughter, Nandipha's mother. She had lost two other daughters to Aids too.

It broke my heart as I walked round the tiny room with no lights and one small bed shared by the grandmother and four children.

They too often go without food and again there was no bathroom or toilet. The roof was leaking and the electrical wires were exposed.

I can't believe people are forced to live like this, it's not right.

Later I visited a settlement in the most horrendous conditions.

I don't think I was quite prepared for what was to come.

I met Anette, who is working with lawyers to establish clean and safe living conditions for the community of 900 people, who all live in appalling, unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

I met the village elder who showed me around. As I walked, the people came out of huts with roofs of plastic held down with rocks. Small children crawled along a rubbish and glass covered dirt floor.

Their clothes were filthy and full of holes. I felt ill with sadness.

No running water in a community of 900 people. Disease, dehydration, depression. We need to support these people.


Morning: We were invited to watch a girls' football match in a small township near Johannesburg - and they all played with skill, athleticism and stamina despite the heat.

I spoke to Kona, founder of the football team programme, Happy Hearts. She said all its children and young adults are from households suffering domestic violence.

And she said many of the girls had been raped. I was stunned.

These poor, poor girls had suffered traumas so awful I can't even begin to think about it.

But, through the project, which also provides counselling, they had found some joy in their lives.

Kona set it up after her sister was raped and killed 10 years ago. Everything is done in her memory and Kona is determined to help other women.

I found her extraordinary.

The project is a great example of how Sport Relief uses sport to help people in desperate situations and to shatter taboos of issues such as domestic violence, HIV and Aids.

I've only been here a short time but it has been a life-changing experience. Seeing what these brave, humble, remarkable people have to endure on a daily basis has put a lot of things in perspective for me.

We have everything. They have nothing. I feel so moved and so saddened but also hopeful that we can all help in some way.

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