I love New York in the fall. Normally I'm here for work to promote a film or a record, but this time, I'm here for a very different reason. I'm in town to talk about my visit to Southern Sudan this past April. That visit changed my life. I remember stepping off the plane into 100-degree weather and being introduced to a woman named Antoinette. Antoinette lived in one of the poorest communities in the region. She'd brought her son Jido with her to meet me and, together, we walked to the Nile to collect their daily drinking water. It was honestly one of the most grueling walks of my life, completely off-path and through some of the most difficult terrain I've ever encountered. When we arrived at the Nile, I was overwhelmed. The river was filled with people bathing, washing clothes and animals -- so many animals, drinking and urinating in the same water Antoinette and Jido would be drinking. This river was Antoinette's tap, shower and bath. She and her son filled their jerry can and we began the long walk back. When we got to back to their village, I worried that she was going to pour me a glass of the dirty water to drink. But instead, she took a package of powder and mixed it with the water and began stirring. The powder -- called PUR -- removed all dirt within a matter of minutes. Within a half hour, the water was safe to drink. This was one of so many stories I recall so clearly.
My visit to Sudan was my first trip as an Ambassador for a child survival program called Five & Alive, which is run by PSI (Population Services International). I'm in New York speaking on their behalf, sharing my experiences with people in town for the Condé Nast World Savers Congress and the Clinton Global Initiative. To be honest, I feel nervous about participating in these meetings. This feels bigger than anything I've done before. I'm just beginning my international humanitarian work, yet here I am, surrounded by the world's leading corporate executives and philanthropists. I know I have something to add to the conversation, but what? I suddenly feel far away from the real reason I'm here and disconnected from the people who moved me so much in Sudan.
All these people gathered in New York are trying to make the lives of the men and women I met in Sudan better. But women like Antoinette and her son Jido already have some of the tools they need to improve their lives. Antoinette used the PUR powder to make her own drinking water safe. But she also talked to the people in her community and showed them how they could clean their drinking water too. Her passion came from years of fighting the illness and disease that drinking dirty water can cause -- diarrhea, dehydration and dysentery.
The walk to the Nile that day has profoundly changed the way I view my role. Antoinette used her knowledge to change the way her families and friends behaved and she made sure that the water they drank was clean. She calls herself a peer educator and that's what I'm going to call myself too. In a way, I'm joining her army, supporting her in the challenges that she faces. The problems that she and so many like her are facing are incredibly complex. But my experience in Sudan has convinced me that solutions do exist, and the people most in need are eager to be part of them. There are simple and cost-effective tools out there that can help people living in the poorest communities in the world, and my role is to talk about those solutions, encouraging support and involvement.
Sudan was not only my first trip with PSI, it was my first trip to Africa. It was challenging, humbling and inspiring. The main goal of the trip was to launch a malaria control program funded by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and supported by local government. I took pictures and kept a journal on my trip and the Global Fund was kind enough to post them on their website. I hope you check it out and continue to check back here.