McNeil fights back against African hunger

Suzie McNeil rocked Zambia. And Zambia, in turn, rocked Suzie McNeil. Back from a trip earlier this month with World Vision, the Toronto-based singer-songwriter is still reverberating from the emotional impact of her weeklong visit.

By Karen Flores

Special to the News

Suzie McNeil rocked Zambia

And Zambia, in turn, rocked Suzie McNeil.

Back from a trip earlier this month with World Vision, the Toronto-based singer-songwriter is still reverberating from the emotional impact of her weeklong visit.

“I knew it would be a life-changing experience but nothing can prepare you for being there,” says McNeil, 32. “Even though you can read about it or watch the reports on TV, it’s not the same as seeing it for real—seeing it, tasting it, smelling it.”

McNeil went to Zambia—a country of about 12 million in Africa’s southern cone—to learn more about how impoverished children and families are coping in the global economic meltdown and what Canadians can do to help.

“Yeah, we’re affected by it,” she says, “but they’re so much more affected. Money may be tight, but we can still go out and grab a cheeseburger. They, on the other hand, can’t even get enough to eat.

“What I discovered is that there’s a whole ecosystem of things, where everything’s tied to everything else. Like, some people had corn crops, but because they had no goats, they had no manure to fertilize them. One thing leads to another.”

In the same way, McNeil says, many children are being denied an education because constant hunger is sapping them of the ability to learn.

“I saw kids who were sitting there like bumps on a log. They had no food, so they had no energy.”

McNeil is encouraging Canadian youth to help their peers overseas by taking part in World Vision’s 30 Hour Famine April 3 and 4. She herself has fond teenage memories of participating in the event, a cross-country fast that raises funds to fight hunger.

“It was fun—good clean fun,” she says. “We had a sleepover where we used to rent tons of movies and just made it into a party. At the same time, though, it also helps kids to look outside of themselves. It makes it real and helps you understand how it feels to be hungry.”

Still, McNeil admits finding it hard to fathom going days without food—as was the norm for Doris, a 12-year-old girl whom she met on her visit.

McNeil decided to sponsor Doris. Before leaving Zambia, she bought her and her family rice, oil, and fish as a way of thanking them for their hospitality.

“I’ve never felt such pure joy in my entire life,” she says.

Nor will McNeil ever forget the reception she received from her Zambian hosts. “Every time we arrived, we were treated to a song of welcome. Then when we left, they sang a song to say goodbye. It was so incredibly moving; I was glad my sunglasses were on, because I’d be bawling most of the time.”

At a school in the rural Luumbo district, McNeil decided to return the favour by performing songs off her sophomore album, Rock-n-Roller. The students got into the act, too, singing alongside her on the hits Let’s Go and Believe.

“It was so adorable,” McNeil says. “They were one of the best crowds I’ve ever played to, without a doubt.” High praise, considering she played for legendary rockers INXS on the reality show Rock Star: INXS and as a headliner at the Grey Cup halftime show last year.

McNeil now plans to follow in the footsteps of Jann Arden and Tom Cochrane—who famously wrote Life is a Highway after travelling to Mozambique with World Vision—by writing a song about her eye-opening visit.

“I saw a lot of success stories,” she says, citing everything from a dance program that educates students on HIV and AIDS prevention, to how livestock purchased, through how the World Vision Christmas Gift Catalogue is providing families with food and a steady source of income.

“It’s easy for all of us to get wrapped up in our own issues,” she says. “But there’s so much else happening in the world. I feel that whatever you believe in, whether it’s the universe or God, the best way to be thankful is to give back. And in giving back, you still get so much in return.”

Karen Flores works for World Vision Canada, which submitted this story.