Radio 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 Power.

"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 Stephen enormously.

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."

Geri Halliwell