Times, February 20-26 1999
Pages 24 - 25.Text by Geri Halliwell.One picture.
A star team has been seeing at first hand the good efforts of
Comic Relief money. The diary of Geri Halliwell, below, reveals
how a literacy project helped village women to get some Girl
"My interest in Africa started years ago, and started all
wrong. My mum used to say to me whenever I didn't eat that I
should think of the children in Africa who were starving.
Somehow that was the thing that lodged in my mind - Africans
were skeletons, starving people hardly able to walk and
desperate to eat broccoli.
I've obviously learnt a lot since then, and I did go to South
Africa with the Spice Girls - but when Comic Relief asked me to
go and see a project just a in a little African village, I
realised I still had no idea how ordinary African people lived
and what they were like. SO I said yes - because I've supported
Comic Relief since I was a teenager at school, and because I
heard Ewan McGrgor was also going on the trip.
My journey was part of Comic Relief's Great Big Excellent
African Adventure. On Sunday, in the first of three programmes,
Lenny Henry starts a journey from Cape Town to Tangier in which
guest presenters including Ewan McGregor, Ruby Wax, Paul
Bradley, Kriss Akabusi and Nick Hancock, Stephen Fry and me
collect mesages on video from the people in Africa. In it they
hear from Africans themselves how money donated in previous
Comic Relief appeals has been put to preactical use to improve
their lives. The video eventually makes it back to Britain,
where Lenny Henry will hand it over to Prime Minister Tony Balir.
Tune in to the second programme to se my contriution.
I kept a rough diary of my visit, just written in pencil on
scraps of paper, and here it is -
what happened to me during four days in Africa, which
incidentally incuded a brush with death...
Day 1 We set off from Heathrow to join the film crew, who are
already in Uganda. Unfortunately Ewan is already back in
England, but I meet up with Stephen Fry and he's pretty cute,
too. We filmed the handover of the crucial message tape beside
the Victoria Nile. Stephen's lovely - like a great big kid and
is very funny. He's twice my size - and looks rather like
Harrison Ford - well, his hat looks like Harrison Ford's hat. We
spend the night in a town called Jinja - a fact that amuses
Day 2 Stephen flies home and I set off to Bulamagi and a project
funded by Comic Relief. It's a two hour journy and I am soaked
in my sweat, but it's worth it for the stunning reaction,
hundreds of women singing and dancing and waving. Of course,
they've got no idea who I am - Wannabe didn't sell a lot of
copies down this way - they're just greeting me as a
representative of the people who gave money for this project.
Basically, the project teaches women how to read and write. Lots
of women here can't do either - and it completely takes away
their rights: this project is putting that straight. Real Girl
Power. You can tell the men don't quite know what to make of it.
Thye sit in the corner while the women do this fabulous
performance - singing, dancing and acting things out - to show
all the ways their lives have improved with reading. It makes me
proud to be aprt of Coomic Relief.
Day 3 Today, my last full day, is meant to be the fun bit.
Strange how things turn out. I get up really early to navigate
rapids on the Victoria Nile as the tape continues its journey
north to Ethopia. There are seven of us in all, me and six guys,
and as we set off there is a lot of laughter. The river is till
and I show the guys how good I would be at faking a convincing
scream when we hit the real rapids. The head guy says that if I
fall in I'll just bob to the surface after the count of ten.
More laughter. I have a microphone strapped to my helmet with a
condom on it to make it waterproof, so they'll be able to hear
me if I go underwater, but I have no intention of getting wet.
The first bit of rapids confirms my suspicion that it is going
to be a doddle. I'm sitting up the front and just duck a bit to
avoid the spray. A bit of white water is a different story. The
moment we hit it, I am catapulted over the top of the boat (I'm
so little that I am not able to tuck my feet under the lip of
the boat, so I just go flying). The next second I am being
sucked into a whirlpool - I count the ten seconds, but I am
still nowhere hear the surface. My eyes are wide open - I can
see everything and I can see nothing - I am paralysed with
panic. I have now counted to 20 and I am still underwater. And
then suddenly it is calm. I've been swept down to the quiet bit,
and the guys pull me back into the boat. Later, I can't believe
what I do next - I agree to hang on tighter next time. I must be
in shock, thinking everything ill be fine.
It isn't. The next bunch of rapids is called Big Brother - and I
think: "Right, just hang on this time, hang on", which
is a mistake. The second we hit the rapids, the whole boat flies
up and turns somersault - we're all thrown in, but I hang on.
Big, big mistake. I am completely trapped and the boat is
smacking me and bashing me. Finally I do manage to let go, but
by that time I am in panic again - I have cut my lip, blood is
pouring into the water, and I think I'm going to die.
Which of course I don't. Though I damn nearly drown the bloke
who pulls me out - I am like Shelley Winters in The Posedon
Adventure, a dangerous madwoman.
So not something I'll be doing I'll be doiing again in a hurry.
But I do think it's taught me a massive lesson. I've always been
the one who shouts, "Go faster, go higher", and theis
time nature slapped me in the face and showed me who's the boss.
I felt so powerless, vulnerable, insignificiant and little. At
the end of the day, faced by the really big stuff, you've got no
control over your life.
Home again The next morning I left, and life went on as usual.
But I've not forgotten either of the things that happened to me.
The rapids taught me a lot. They put me in my place a bit, which
proved useful when i was waiting to go out and sing Happy
Birthday to Prince Charles at his birthday gala concert. I was
absolutely terrified, but I just said to myself, "It could
be worse - at least I'm not drowning in Uganda."
As for the literacy project - well, what can I say? It'd be
great if everyone reading this could raise a a few pounds for
COmic Relief. I swear if you'b been with me (YES YES YES) and
seen just how confident learning to read made the women feel -
you wouldn't have a moment's doubt that every penny was useful
and worth it. The truth is, a few quid is a lot more useful to
them than a plate of broccoli."