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Annie Lennox visits street paper in Malawi

 INSP 18 February 2019

Pop star Annie Lennox was wowed by street paper vendors serenading her at The Big Issue office in Blantyre on Friday. The visit to the Malawian capital was part of her first trip as a Scottish Parliament-appointed envoy. (818 Words) - By Lameck Masina and Danielle Batist

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Annie Lennox and The Big Issue Malawi's executive director Omega Chanje look at recent issues of the magazine. Photo: Davison Makhole

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The Big Issue Malawi vendors welcome Annie Lennox to the magazine’s Blantyre office. Photo: Davison Makhole

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The Big Issue vendors and staff with Annie Lennox. Photo: Davison Makhole

Annie Lennox

When pop icon Annie Lennox swept into the recent Festival of Politics in Edinburgh, Scotland, her glamour alone was enough to cause a stir amongst the suits. But when she announced that she wanted to become Scotland's ambassador on HIV and Aids and criticised the Pope for making "no sense" over Aids prevention in Africa, headlines were guaranteed. "Make Poverty History?" she asks? "Yes, that's a lovely idea but it's not going to happen overnight and it's certainly not going to happen as the result of a concert in Hyde Park and the spin-offs that came from that." Laura Kelly asks a music industry legend why she wants to be a global Aids ambassador.

By Laura Kelly (The Big Issue UK)

Sitting in the library of the swanky Macdonald Holyrood Hotel, looking as elegant and striking as ever in skinny jeans and a white smock top, Lennox tells the Big Issue Scotland that she's delighted to have got so much attention for a cause that struggles to get the status it deserves in Britain. "With HIV, because of the stigma and the silence on the issue - you know, nobody's out there marching for HIV in this country - just to have some exposure is of value to keep attention on the issue, which doesn't go away," she explains.

Whilst a success, her trip to the parliament was a year later than Lennox wanted. Last August she was dramatically forced to cancel after being rushed home from an Aids conference in Mexico in a wheelchair following a back injury. For a while it looked like this symbol of '80s elegance and strength - the woman who with Eurythmics had huge hits with 'Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)', 'Thorn in My Side' and 'There Must Be an Angel (Playing with My Heart)' and who on her own again smashed the charts with 'Walking On Broken Glass', 'No More I Love Yous' and 'Why' - might be left permanently disabled.

Today, having struggled through a period when her foot was paralysed so she walked with a limp and needed a crutch, she is able to walk again after surgery to release an impinged nerve. "I'm very grateful to be able to walk," she says. "I could have been on a crutch and certainly I couldn't have run or jumped or skipped - I can just about run now. I can certainly walk without a limp. But I've been through that this last year. It just goes to show the vulnerability we all have."

Though the incident left her with a greater appreciation of how misfortune can hit anyone no matter "how much money you have, how famous you are, what position of power you hold", Lennox is profoundly conscious of the fact that she wouldn't be able to easily walk over and make herself a cup of green tea - as she's just done to prove how mobile she is again - if it weren't for her position as a wealthy member of a wealthy Western society.

The experience has therefore reaffirmed her commitment to ensuring that women around the world have access to the sort of opportunities that she has had. "I've had good medical care, a certain kind of education and opportunities in life and I had to struggle to get them," she says. "So I feel when I look at other women, it doesn't matter which part of the world they're from, I want to see them have similar rights. I want to see them empowered. I want them to have education so that they can see what their rights really are."

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Addressing the street paper's vendors and support workers, Lennox said: "I think you are doing great work. The street paper has transformed people's lives at a grassroots level. The effort your organisation puts in from the top trickle down and that is very important."

The magazine, set up with support from Glasgow-based charity, International Network of Street Papers (INSP), has enabled 400 homeless and vulnerably housed vendors to earn a living since its launch in 2009. Funded by the Scottish Government, the magazine prints 1,500 copies every two months and is sold on the streets of Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuzu, Zomba and Mangochi.

INSP's Executive Director Lisa Maclean said: "We are very proud of The Big Issue Malawi for the work they are doing getting people experiencing poverty and homelessness off the streets and into work. The Scottish Government has been a tremendous supporter of the partnership between INSP and The Big Issue Malawi and their contribution to our poverty alleviation work in Malawi has been significant. The successful visit of Annie Lennox today will only help to further endorse the good work of The Big Issue Malawi in the years to come."

Following a tour of The Big Issue Malawi's distribution office, Lennox invited vendors to sing some songs with her. She said: "Music is a great vehicle for sending messages to people. It is an international language."

Referring to her own SING campaign against HIV/AIDS, she said: "When you come to any African country, the first thing that happens is that people sing. We did it today and when we go ahead to other places, this is what happens. I called my campaign SING for that reason."

"Don't stop the work you're doing. It is making a huge difference."

A long-time campaigner, Lennox witnessed positive change in the area of HIV/AIDS prevention on her latest visit to the African country. "My campaign is about talking, about [creating a] dialogue, because this is about fighting a stigma. Keeping silent is deadly, but transformation is taking place in Malawi. I have been to places where ten years ago things would have been different."

"I visited villages where people living with HIV/AIDS would have been cast out ten years ago. Instead of that, tribal chiefs are now welcoming people living with HIV in the community - giving them support and not discarding them and excluding them. The stigma is slowly being reduced."

Malawi ranks among the world's least developed countries. The majority of young, urban adults search for jobs that do not exist and frequently become homeless. The stigma surrounding homelessness is huge, as it is often associated with begging, sex work and HIV, leading to the exclusion of homeless people from society. The Big Issue Malawi works to address many of these problems.

Talking about the problems remaining in the country, Lennox praised the efforts of the street paper: "This is real grassroots transformation and I am very encouraged by what you are doing. Everyone can play a part [in creating change]. I am just one person and I do as much as I can. Together we can inspire other people to start to focus and stay committed."

The Big Issue Malawi's Executive Director Omega Chanje-Mulwafu was "delighted" with the visit by the Scottish celebrity, claiming her encouraging speech "will boost the vendor morale".

Sara Sangaya is one of the street paper's vendors in Blantyre. "I am a widow looking after orphans and I get much of my needs covered from selling the magazine in the streets. Though I cannot fulfill all my requirements yet, I am certain that I will make a step forward with the help of The Big Issue Malawi."

Scottish Parliament Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson joined Lennox on part of her visit to Malawi. The President of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Scotland Branch (CPASB) said he was "highly impressed" with the efforts made by Scottish and local NGOs on the ground.

Just hours after his return to Scotland, he commented: "The poverty you encounter when you visit a country like Malawi is at a level we don't have here in Scotland. The problems are huge, but what I came away with is a realisation that by putting in very little, you can achieve an enormous amount."

"We visited many projects supported by Scottish NGOs and organisations. One hospital matron had tears in her eyes when she told us how much child mortality had decreased since a new ward was built. That touches you. Annie [Lennox] and I are both convinced of the need for continued support in Malawi. We want to tell people in Scotland: 'Don't stop the work you're doing. It is making a huge difference.'"

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