By Vidya Kulkarni
“AIDS is not going to get me down… There are a lot of things I want to do. I am just going to get on with my life…,” said Thembi Ngubane, a 23 year old HIV/AIDS activist from South Africa, to people she met on her solo campaign to humanize the epidemic and to encourage more and more HIV affected people to come out of the shadows.
Thembi was in Mumbai on a UNICEF facilitated trip to the city with the highest estimated levels of HIV in the country, primarily to highlight HIV prevention and girls’ education.
During her trip from 21st to 25th October, she visited UNICEF-supported projects. Thembi interacted with a group of school girls, met youth peer educators associated with a network of people living with HIV/AIDS and exchanged views with celebrities working on awareness, including popular MTV India VJ Cyrus Brocha.
The visit was part of various events held to mark the 2nd anniversary of the Unite for Children Unite Against AIDS campaign in the two countries with the highest prevalence rates: India and South Africa.
Short built Thembi speaks straight from the heart. Sharing personal feelings that fuel her challenging mission Thembi says, “I hate to be a victim and I am going to prove people wrong, who think that HIV is the end of life.”
Her forceful tone emphasizes urgency for action, “It is very disturbing to see the damage HIV stigma has done to people. But we can control the spread of the epidemic by breaking down the silence that surrounds this subject” she asserts.
Thembi comes from Khayelitsha, a small township near Cape Town in South Africa. After the initial shock of learning about her status, she thought she wouldn’t talk about it with anyone. Soon however, she overcame her fears and accepted reality. She decided to convert her personal challenge into a message.
Thembiwas supported by a radio journalist who came up with the idea of chronicling her day-to-day experiences of living a life with HIV/AIDS. What resulted was a fascinating, moving and inspiring story of a young woman's fight with this fast-expanding, world-wide disease.
Thembi’s ‘radio diaries’ were first broadcast on the National Public Radio in the United States and later in her home country as well.
Through the diaries Thembi shares all she has learned about coping with the virus in her day-to-day life in a gentle and humorous manner, offering hope and support to thousands of AIDS afflicted people.
Thembi has a supportive family. Her boyfriend, Melikhaya and her baby daughter, give her joy and a reason to keep fighting her disease. Thembi was able to save her daughter from the infection due to timely treatment she received in her pregnancy. Thembi had a hard time disclosing her status to her parents, who are her biggest supporters.
“Young women in South Africa are four times more likely to be infected than young men. The situation in India is somewhat similar and young women here are twice as likely to be infected” she said.
Thembi, who visited India for the first time, admitted that she was pleasantly surprised to see impressive levels of awareness, especially among the youth. “I thought India being a traditional country would exhibit rigidity in listening to or taking about HIV. I expected to have a hard time getting people to listen to me. But I find a lot of people are aware and willing to translate awareness into action to sensitize communities” she said.