By NICHOLAS DAVIS, TORONTO SUN
With a population of about 65 million people, Ethiopia is the third largest country in Africa. The life expectancy of men there is 45 years old, 46 for women. Over half the population lives below the poverty line and over 4% of the population has HIV/AIDS, according to United Nation figures.
Toronto rap artist Jason Rochester was aware of these numbers before he visited Ethiopia earlier this year. He also knew those numbers contributed to the fact that more than half the country is under 20 years old. He learned all of this while preparing for his trip. What he wasn't prepared for was the attitude of the Ethiopian people.
"The most striking thing I saw when I got there were the smiles on people's faces," said Rochester, who was born and raised in Rexdale. "I know so many people here in Toronto who, if they had to live the way people in Ethiopia live, they would be depressed, some would even consider suicide.
"It was inspiring to see how happy the people in Ethiopia were despite what was going on in their own lives."
Rochester went to Africa as part of The 411 Initiative For Change's HIV/AIDS Education Program. The 411 Initiative For Change is a youth-led Canadian charity working to educate and promote the civic participation of young people on social issues through a variety of programs.
This is the fourth year Rochester has worked with 411. He has been involved in many of their programs, but this year's HIV/AIDS project meant a lot to him.
"I was so happy when they asked me to go to Ethiopia," he said. "All my life I wanted to visit Africa, just to see what it was like over there in the motherland. I always used to question if it was really like those infomercials you see on TV. This gave me a chance to check it out for myself."
411 sent a group of youth leaders and Canadian hip-hop artists to Ethiopia to teach young people there with AIDS how to use cameras and videos to reflect how they live. What the Canadian contingent saw first hand was the level of devastation AIDS has had on Ethiopia.
"It wasn't like the infomercials on TV but it was sad to see the people living with AIDS," said Rochester, who has been a fixture in Toronto's hip-hop scene for the past eight years.
"I saw this one elderly lady with AIDS who would walk miles and miles every day with these eucalyptus trees on her back so she could help young people who were worse off than her. It brought tears to my eyes, but it made me realize that if she could go the extra distance to help people, so could I."
After coming back from Africa, Rochester volunteered to be a youth spokesperson for HIV/AIDS awareness, in addition to his role as a youth ambassador for 411. The images and videos that Rochester and the other Canadians brought back are being made into a documentary, called "Through Children's Eyes." It will be used to create awareness of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, and in a national school tour that gets under way in February.
"I'm looking forward to getting out there and spreading the message to young people here about AIDS prevention," Rochester said. "Over in Africa it's a lack of resources and education about AIDS that leads to so many young people being infected.
"Here in Canada AIDS is a problem among young people as well, but people don't want to admit what's going on. I hope the video and images we've brought back can make the message of prevention sink in."
As a lead up to World Aids Day this Saturday, 411 is offering its HIV/AIDS Education Program free through a registration lottery for Canadian Schools that can demonstrate the greatest need.
To register, visit www.whatsthe411.ca. Winning schools will be announced on Saturday.
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