Drew Anderson, left, and Brian Thomsen. Photo by Jake Chirico.

It’s not every day Guelph students star in a movie, but the special friendships between five local students and their African counterparts are featured in Start With Us, a 45-minute documentary exploring how young people are coping with the HIV and AIDS pandemic in the small landlocked country of Lesotho.

Just over a year ago, second-year students Brian Thomsen, biomedical science, and Drew Anderson, biomedical engineering, took part in the Reach Lesotho project documented in the film. Aimed at inspiring Canadian youth to join the fight against HIV and AIDS, the project was developed by the charitable organization I Have Hope, along with the Upper Grand District School Board and other partners.

Including Thomsen and Anderson, a dozen Canadian students embarked on a humanitarian journey to Lesotho, which has one of the highest rates of HIV and AIDS in the world. The documentary suggests their experiences had as profound an impact on them as they did on the African students they got to know during the trip.

Thomsen and Anderson completed their sojourn with a fresh mission in mind: to share a message of hope with their peers here at home.

Thomsen says learning about the Basotho people and their way of life gave him a more patient perspective on why such an important problem as HIV and AIDS seems to take a very long time to solve. “There are barriers to overcome, but they are surmountable.

“Some believe it’s voyeuristic and say people should not visit developing nations where there often are human rights issues. On the other hand, I saw how tourism can not only help the economy but lead to greater international awareness, which, in turn, improves business practices and political stability. Small steps are meaningful – they add up. Even a simple activity like tree planting can help bring a community closer together.”

Anderson, a member of the University’s track and cross-country teams, agrees: “To deal with global issues, you have to start somewhere. Sure, they can’t be fixed overnight, but the youth in Lesotho want to discuss the issues they face in order to develop solutions. They share the same dreams as you and me, but are held back by misconceptions about HIV and AIDS and a lack of education and treatment options. They’ve suffered the terrible loss of family members to the disease, yet they are happy to be alive, grateful for what they have, and hopeful that positive change can and will be achieved. They appreciate knowing there are people in other parts of the world who care. Our conversations were a starting point that left everyone involved wanting to do more.”

In Lesotho, Anderson was partnered with Letunia, a young Basotho man who studied extremely hard and was determined to become a civil engineer. Orphaned early in life, Letunia was already adept at living on his own at the age of 19.

Thomsen says the students from Canada and Lesotho found common ground, but differences in culture and lifestyle did occasionally present challenges. He plans to become a veterinarian and found it hard to behead a chicken at the poultry farm owned by the family of Tialane, the student with whom he was paired.

The Canadians were not by-standers, adds Thomsen. They found out first-hand what daily life was like – fetching water, going to school, tending the garden – and came to understand what was important for the African community in the eyes of the people who live there.

Start With Us was directed by international development student Abid Virani, who is also co-founder and CEO of I Have Hope. It premiered at a private screening in Toronto on World Aids Day in December 2011. The film has since been viewed in Kingston and Ottawa, and used as a teaching tool in geography and international development classes at U of G. A public screening will be held at The Bookshelf in Guelph on Aug. 23, and the film will be shown next month at the Bay Street Film Festival in Thunder Bay.

“Hearing others’ perspectives helps broaden your view,” says Thomsen. “The film aims to inspire young people in Canada to get involved, and I’m proud to be part of that.”

Anderson adds that there are a lot of ways for youth to get involved with global issues. “We don’t have to be in Lesotho to help make the world a healthier, more equitable place. Making a difference starts with us, here and now.”


Watch the trailer for Start With Us

Director Abid Virani talks with Justin Trudeau about a specific scene in the film and what it means to be youthful.