Losing a generation


TV Review:  'This is the wrong moment in history to sit on the fence," said Dr Mike Meegan, founder of ICROSS (International Community for the Relief of Starvation and Suffering) in the compelling documentary, When You Say Four Thousand Goodbyes.

 The Terenure-born Meegan also gave us some statistics: every hour in Africa 250 people die of tuberculosis, 100 people die of malaria and 50 people die of Aids. Every hour the death toll further devastates a continent already on its knees, its infrastructure decimated by disease and poverty. About 25 million Africans have Aids, of whom two million will die this year. In Kenya, where there are more than one million Aids orphans. People collect stray children and give them shelter much as we might collect stray cats. Every week in Africa the poor get poorer. Between now and the time the coffee percolates, people will die without medication, some lying on sacking without a blanket or a mattress. A blanket, Meegan matter-of-factly told us, costs about €1.50, a mattress about €7.

Often the sheer magnitude of the crisis in Africa allows us to distance ourselves. What, we ask ourselves, can we possibly do? Meegan answered that question for himself 25 years ago when he went to live among the Masai in Kenya ("the poorest of the poor") and began his low-cost, sustainable work.

The documentary looked at the tragedies he witnesses on a daily basis, and at the grace, dignity and forbearance of the sufferers. It also provided a platform for Meegan's coherent argument that aid must be disseminated through proven NGOs, not corrupt African governments.

Sometimes described as a saint, Meegan is clearly a complex and spiritual man with something of the rock star about him. Saint or not, he is both egalitarian and inventive: trained as an epidemiologist, he has found a way of killing water-borne diseases, and his flytrap for reducing malaria has been adopted by the World Health Organisation.

Meegan and his African colleagues run a network of primitive health clinics serving more than 300,000 people. Among his 560 staff (most of whom work voluntarily), more than half are HIV positive. Standing in a deserted Masai village, Meegan explained the absence of life: the village's two schoolteachers, both in their mid-20s, were dead, as were the headmaster of a neighbouring school and the doctor - all from Aids. Elsewhere, in the shell of a clinic "in the middle of nowhere", several days' walk from water and electricity, which the Masai had begun to build, carrying materials by hand, construction had been halted for want of €5,000 to finish it.

Meegan spoke simply about personal responsibilities, about "getting off our knees and doing something. The €5,000 needed to finish this clinic - less than the price of a car - would provide healthcare for 15,000 people, while a clean water-hole costs just €1,500".

As this great and preventable tragedy unfolds, Meegan predicts that "Africa is in imminent danger of losing an entire generation and will become a wasteland".

Despite such soul-destroying realities as the fact that more money was spent on "destroying Iraq" than was given to Africa in 10 years' worth of aid, Meegan's spiritual conviction endures. The documentary opened with Meegan holding and praying with Boniface, an emaciated victim whose whole family had been wiped out by Aids. Boniface, afforded a dignified death among a community that loved him, was one of the lucky ones among the 4,000 goodbyes of the title that Meegan has experienced since he began his work in 1979. The tally will continue to rise.

FIJI, WHERE THE sun shines on somewhat less devastation, is home to Celebrity Love Island and has the spurious honour of hosting 12 immensely vain and staggeringly dumb celebrities - well, actually, a couple of models, some actors, an "it girl" with a title (Lady It, probably), a TV presenter, an ex-nurse-turned-page-three-girl, an ex-footballer growing out of his streaks, and a Dublin nightclub owner whose brain has slipped unnoticed through his piercings. This bunch are actually a kind of celebrity sarong, keeping the absence of the real thing under wraps. These young contenders, who do very fast yoga and have rock-hard little bottoms (well, some of them) have been chosen by canny producers (probably with big flaccid behinds, having sat on them all day thinking up awful TV ideas) in the hope that they'll mate.

There must be some brain-poisoning disease you can catch from bad television, and watching Celebrity Love Island is like eating a dodgy kebab - it can leave you feeling nauseous for days. Never again, you gasp, as you retch over the remains.

There is, of course, telephone voting involved, the purpose of which wasn't manifestly apparent, but presumably you vote together the couples who are most likely to shag on television, or at least share the jacuzzi. Patrick Kielty and his sun-block present the series, and when he's not wading through some over-rehearsed joke with a look of bland panic, his leggy sidekick, Kelly Brook, is waggling her flip-flops all over his one-liners. Which is some small relief.

Celebrity Love Island is awful and sad and will make you worry about what kind of world your children are growing up in and why young men use sunbeds and wear big baggy shorts that make their knees look like snooker balls. Here is a snippet of conversation from the lagoon: "Ooh, I love Real Madrid, I could watch Italian football forever." You have been warned.

TALKING OF EX-footballers growing out of their streaks, Paul Gascoigne is not ready yet to be put out to grass on Celebrity Love Island. Despite a stern talking-to from pundit Alan Hansen on Life After Football, Gazza still refuses to accept that he is an ex-footballer. Slumped over his exercise bike, he told Hansen of his plan to put a bet on himself playing in the Premiership once more, then to take his coaching badges, be appointed manager of a top club and select himself in the team, before picking up his winnings. When Hansen insisted once again that Gazza should accept that his footballing life was over, that his great days were behind him, the camera politely pulled away before more famous tears were shed.

The achievement of Life After Football was that it made us feel some sympathy for its almost obscenely pampered subjects, most of whom will never have to worry about mundane details such as money ever again. Recovering alcoholic Neil Ruddock said that when his playing days were over he realised he had no idea even how to call a doctor or find a dentist. The lucky few with media careers, such as Gary Lineker and Hansen, and those who manage to stay in the game as coaches and managers, are far outnumbered by the bored, aimless, grown-up kids rattling around their mock-Tudor mansions. Former Republic of Ireland international Tony Cascarino said he thought retirement might be a nice opportunity to take the wife to the park for a walk, but seemed to have no further plans. But at least his relationship has survived, unlike the 70 per cent of football marriages that end in divorce after "the body betrays the talent". For most of these former stars, without the addictive buzz of mass adulation, the days stretch ahead like a baggy jock-strap.

Well, we finally faced our Waterloo. Donna and Joe and an awful song - the kind of song that assaults you relentlessly when you're trying to get some sleep on your package holiday - failed to make it through the Eurovision Song Contest Semi-final. during a mind-boggling two-and-a-half hours of stilt-wakers, Romanian angle-grinders and endless synchronised shimmying on the shiny floor, there were other notable failures. Mrs Belarus (in a golden tent with a voice that could remove wallpaper), Andoora (population 50,000, all of whom appeared to be on stage), Icedland (a bevy of sporty-looking girls in pedal-pushers) and the Joe Doland of Finland all failed to move Europe to pick up its telephone and vote. Bulgaria's most desirable man, however, successfully lost his country's Eurovision virginity despite dressing his backing singer in Guantanamo orange.

The dogs on the street are blaming block-voting. According to jeremy Paxman on newsnight, however, they've been shooting the dogs on the streets of Kiev to make way for the Eurovision competitors. On the basis of Thursday's preview, that action may be humane. Enjoy.