Bono, the Rock star, breezed through town last week to raise awareness of all that Bono, the humanitarian, holds dear.
Using his split personality was part of a calculated move to give his cause — the dire AIDS pandemic in Africa — more attention due to his celebrity. Judging by attendance and enthusiasm at his various stops, it worked.
"The first thing we have to get over is the idea that this is the cause du jour," the U2 frontman said. "There are many things I have strong passions about. This is not one of them. This is not a cause. It's an emergency."
Along with movie star Chris Tucker and African AIDS activist Agnes Nyamayarwo, Bono spent a full day Dec. 6 bouncing around Cincinnati, visiting Caracole, an AIDS hospice; sitting in on a University of Cincinnati College of Law class; and holding court at a press conference in the offices of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. His message was simple but poignant.
"Over 2.5 million Africans are going to die next year because they don't have drugs that we take for granted in America and Europe," he said.
About 100 students, professors and university officials at UC sat up and took notice when Bono painted the portrait of modern-day Africa. Sitting in a small semi-circle with Tucker and Nyamayarwo, Bono, a native Irishman, mixed data with anecdotes from his many fact-finding trips. Not once did he defer a tough question to some member of his entourage to answer. He led the session and set its tone with a mix of hard-hitting facts and self-effacing humor.
"It's great to speak to university students," he said. "I don't have any letters after my name. In fact, I don't have any name after my name."
Bono's "Heart of America" tour, planned by Debt AIDS Trade Africa (DATA), began Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, in Lincoln, Neb. The reason for the Midwest tour was simple, he said. DATA needs this idea — of helping, of caring about Africa at all — to grow in the fertile soil of Midwestern states. He spoke of this region's "decency" setting the course for the rest of the country — a mantra earlier used to explain President Bush's visit to Cincinnati to drum up support for war on Iraq (see War Cries in Cincinnati, issue of Oct. 10-16).
"It's been a long week, but we're renewed in our belief that this part of the world was the right place to come," he said.
The myth of 'no votes'
One key to directing the "moral compass" of the Midwest, Bono said, was to convince editorial boards at mainstream newspapers in each city he visited to cover the crisis in Africa. That it isn't being described in the media as an emergency should present deep questions about what we call news in this culture, he said.
This is essentially gut-check time for our civilization, Bono told the UC class. How will we react now that we know the facts?
"This is one of the moments that will define us," he said. "We don't want our children asking how we let an entire continent burst into flames while we stood by and watched."
Both the lecture and press event were Bono's show, but he included Tucker and Nyamayarwo whenever he could, soliciting their input and experience. Tucker acknowledged he was on the tour to support Bono and to help spread the word about the tragedy of Africa to African Americans. After visiting Africa recently on one of Bono's trips, Tucker said he felt immediately connected to the people and to the problem.
"I just want to now do whatever I can to help," he said.
Nyamayarwo stepped forward at both the UC lecture and the media conference and told her sad tale. She watched her husband die of AIDS and nursed her youngest son before she knew she was infected. She watched him die when he was 6 years old.
"I still live with that guilt," Nyamayarwo said.
Medicine to prevent HIV from spreading from mother to child through breast milk is available in America for less than a dollar per day, according to Bono.
But money isn't the only answer, and it isn't why he started the heartland tour. He spoke of the "crisis of confidence" that accompanies any fund-raising cause and bluntly said he wanted no part of that.
Rather, Bono said his goal is to start a groundswell of energy that will alert elected officials to the problem and to the public's level of concern.
"There is a myth that there are no votes in this," he said. "Politicians feel the people in the Midwest are insulated. But I urge you to ring your Congressmen, e-mail them. Let them know you care."
Cincinnati City Councilman John Cranley, who teaches at UC's College of Law, introduced Bono to his class. Cranley noted he had included African debt relief in his congressional campaign in 2000.
His Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Cincinnati), targeted him for that stance, according to Cranley. Ultimately, Cranley admitted he lost the race "substantially," at which Bono laughed and called Chabot a "dirty player."
Bono reiterated to both his UC audience and the media that the principles upon which the United States was built demand we intervene in the African crisis. He said he has been re-reading the Declaration of Independence and it confirms for him why he is such "a fan of America."
"This isn't just a country," Bono said. "It's an idea. This is the time to look back at what you are." ©