Thembi Ngubane, South African AIDS activistBy: CLARE NULLIS
CAPE TOWN – South African health activist Thembi Ngubane, whose radio diaries of her struggle against the AIDS virus won her audiences and admiration around the world, has died of tuberculosis at 24.
Joe Richman, who produced the diaries and became her friend, said Ngubane had drug-resistant TB that was diagnosed too late to save her. She died on Tuesday, leaving a four-year-old daughter.
A memorial service was held on Friday in her teeming Cape Town suburb of Khayelitsha, one of the areas worst affected by the dual AIDS-TB epidemic.
Ngubane fought a very public battle against HIV.
“Hi, this is Thembi,” began the diaries. “Every morning when I wake up I run off to my drawer, take out the mirror and look at myself. Then I start to do my prayer. I say it every day every time when I am feeling angry.
“I say, ‘Hello HIV, you trespasser. You are in my body, you have to obey their rules. you have to respect me and if you don’t hurt me, I won’t hurt you. You mind your business and I will mind mine and I will give you a ticket when your time comes,” she said.
Ngubane was 19 when she was given a tape recorder to make an audio diary about living with HIV in a country where nearly one third of young women are infected with the virus. Few families have been left unscathed by the epidemic and yet the stigma remains so strong that many people are too scared to tell even their closest family and friends.
Ngubane carried the recorder with her for more than a year, revealing her first conversation with her mother about AIDS; a visit to the township clinic to get lifesaving drugs; telling her father about her status; playing with her daughter Onwabo.
US National Public Radio aired the tapes in April 2006, on her 21st birthday. She subsequently went on a five-city tour in the United States, meeting former President Bill Clinton and speaking to students, lawmakers, doctors and celebrities.
Her story was subsequently broadcast in Britain, Australia and Canada, moving an audience of more than 50 million people with her eloquence and honesty.
“Our parents struggled against apartheid, they wanted to be free. And it is the same with HIV-AIDS. This is the new struggle,” she said. “Finding the courage to speak out in South Africa is the most important thing I have done,” she said.
Like many South Africans, Ngubane suffered from the government’s reticence to provide anti-retroviral drugs to people with the AIDS virus.
“My face was becoming like bones, I couldn’t walk. Everything that was happening I thought would never happen to me,” she commented before finally receiving the lifesaving drugs.
She seized the opportunity to be a contestant on Imagine Africa, an AIDS reality television show broadcast throughout Africa and she and her boyfriend Melikhaya helped with South African prevention programs.
She had several battles against TB – which thrives on the weakened immune systems of people with HIV. Richman said she developed a drug resistant strain and so failed to respond to TB treatment and her health deteriorated rapidly.
Khayelitsha has 1 500 cases of TB per 100 000 people – nearly four times the level classed as an emergency by the World Health Organisation.
Health workers detected 200 cases of the dangerous drug resistant strain last year, but many people died before they could be diagnosed. And for others, like Ngubane, the diagnosis came too late for treatment.
– On the Web: Thembi’s diary is on www.radiodiaries.org