Leslie Feist was in rural Malawi when a lightbulb went off in her head — an idea as simple and effective as, well, her famous song "1234." She would need backpacks.
Lots and lots of backpacks.
The Canadian singer had gone to the Zomba District of the southeast African nation in 2015 to see the work being done by Dignitas International, a Toronto-based healthcare NGO that has helped a quarter-million Malawians with HIV/AIDS since 2004.
During this time, the country's HIV infection rate has fallen from an estimated 25 per cent of the population to a still-staggering 10 per cent as they scaled up antiretroviral therapy which prevents HIV from developing into AIDS.
Leslie Feist meets local children in rural Malawi. (Feist)
"I was in a little village that they had taken me to where Dignitas has a monthly club for HIV positive kids. It's like walking into any school — chaos. There's dodgeball being thrown around the classroom. There are kids who are super shy and looking at the TV and other kids who just couldn't care less and are kind of making fun of you. A couple of them sort of take your hand and just adopt you for the day," she recalls.
"You know, just like kids."
Dignitas was starting a new Teen Club program where HIV+ youth from ages six to 20 could meet to pick up their antiretrovirals, mentor the young ones and learn about their health needs. Kids who participate are three times more likely to stay on treatment.
"They were teaching the kids how to have compassion for themselves... [and] busting the myths floating around Malawi with all the stigma around HIV."
— Feist, singer
"They were teaching the kids how to have compassion for themselves and how important it is to adhere to their meds and how it's possible for them to have families and sort of just busting the myths floating around Malawi with all the stigma around HIV," Feist says.
That stigma created the need for backpacks.
Feist meets two young girls in Malawi. (Feist)
Feist has been largely off the radar since the 2011 release of her award-winning album "Metals" and since the album's subsequent tour came to a close the end of the following year. (Fans can expect her long-awaited follow-up in April as well as her vocals on the upcoming Broken Social Scene record.)
During those concerts, as with earlier tours, she donated all her merch sales to charity.
"But it always felt a little bit like the dad who buys gifts at the airport for the kid he doesn't spend enough time with," she adds. "Because it was. I was putting this gesture in place of actually activating on my own. I just felt like it was time to step into some type of responsibility."
"I just felt like it was time to step into some type of responsibility."
— Feist, singer
Feist had become friends with 70-year-old playwright and novelist David Young, who she met via Canadian author Michael Ondaatje. Young, in turn, introduced her to Dignitas, which he sits on the board of along with his brother Michael.
"He just threw the gauntlet, like 'Hey you should just come and see what we do.' It felt like a good place to step into charitable work [and] address this gap in my understanding of the world," she says.
"They just said keep your eyes peeled for anything you think you're actually capable of doing."
Malawian kids showing off their new backpacks sent by Canadian kids. (Dignitas)
Which brings us back to backpacks.
Dignitas dispenses meds to the kids, some of whom have walked days to get there, and sends them on their way. But they’re kids. Kids lose stuff. And there's a lot to lose. Sometimes boxes of medicine get waylaid on the way back to their rural boarding schools. Sometimes it happens once they get there because they live in shared spaces with no privacy and often stash their meds in the grass.
"The local director of Dignitas just casually said they have nowhere to keep anything and if they had bags it would make such a massive difference," says Feist. "She referred to it as 'a tiny hole in the bottom of this boat. We succeeded in getting all of these kids free drugs and social and educational support. But if they can't keep them safe then the whole thing falls apart.’"
"I got the glimmer in my mind," she recalls. The science-focused Dignitas was not equipped to find backpacks for kids, but this was a thing Feist could actually achieve.
"We succeeded in getting all of these kids free drugs and social and educational support. But if they can't keep them safe then the whole thing falls apart."
— Feist, singer
Once she returned to Canada, opportunities quickly began presenting themselves. She found a charity called Freecycle that was shipping containers full of bikes to Malawi and could bring the backpacks for free. She also met Toronto District School Board trustee Marit Stiles who could help bring her campaign into local schools.
Last year's inaugural campaign was a huge success, reaching 1,000 donated bags despite only being in a half-dozen schools, though that number was bolstered by a major contribution of returned bags by MEC (formerly Mountain Equipment Co-Op).
Sending the bags meant all donated money could be applied to Dignitas' medical mandate and because every bag was different, the kids wouldn't be singled out for carrying medicine bags.
"I was interested in creating a tunnel for existing resources to go through, maybe even foster a sense of a simple human exchange and using a tiny bit of our abundance to fill a tiny bit of their lack," Feist says.
Malawian teen holds up letters sent to them by Canadian students. (Dignitas)
What she hadn't factored in was the impact it would have on kids here, who learned about challenges faced by their peers in the developing world and got a "tangible and practical way" to engage in social justice issues.
"Every kid has a really deep connection to their backpack. They're totems of going to school and it was actually some of the students who thought to put notes in. Like, 'Hi, my name's Ella. This was my bag for three years and I love it so I hope you love it just as much now that it's your bag.' It was just simple and beautiful."
So a thousand bags made their way to Malawi and the plan worked so well that Dignitas asked for more.
But this time they needed 6,000 backpacks.
Feist poses proudly with elementary school students in front of some of last year's backpack haul. (Feist)
Last year, a "mom network" spread the backpack drive around to a few schools in Toronto's west-end. This year it needs to grow a lot more.
"So far we are only in six schools and need basically 54 more schools. That's the challenge we're facing and I don't really know how to do that because the moms are really where the momentum picked up," Feist says, adding that she's also hoping for contribution from companies like MEC or Canadian Tire. They also have a community collection point at Academy of Lions.
"I'm a little concerned how we're going to get so many more," Feist admits. "But with the parents who read this maybe there's a chance."
Teachers, parent councils, trustees, student clubs, youth groups and companies that would like to participate in the Backpacks for Malawi drive can contact Marit Stiles at email@example.com and/or Moyo Rainos Mutamba at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on setting up a local drive.