Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Remembering Thembi

A few years ago, when I worked at UNICEF Headquarters, I went to an hour-long presentation by a young woman named Thembi Ngubane from Khayelitsha, a township outside of Cape Town in South Africa, who was living with HIV.

Her presentation and the NPR-featured audio diary that went with it chronicled what it's like to be a bright and spirited 19-year old living with HIV. She taped and shared with us what it was like to disclose her HIV status to her father, talk with her health worker about her antiretroviral regimen, and ask her boyfriend Melikhaya (who took this photo) late one night if he ever hated her because she infected him with the virus.

In all the other presentations and meeting I went to at UNICEF, I have never seen an audience so emotionally affected by someone's story. Over the next few years, it was my privilege to work briefly with Thembi as she matured into an international AIDS activist, traveling and sharing her courage and her unbelievable spirit with everyone she met.

A few days ago, Thembi died of multi-drug resistant TB, a deadly co-infection that disproportionately affects people living with HIV, especially in Southern Africa. She was 24. Thembi is survived by her boyfriend Melikhaya and their young daughter, Onwabo, who is living HIV-free thanks to drugs that prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

Joe Richman, the Radio Diaries producer who mentored and supported Thembi, included this quote of hers in the email with news of her death:

"Seeing people who were losing hope, who were on the death road, made me realize that there is no time to waste. People needed to be aware. I felt like maybe some of the way AIDS has been portrayed hasn't helped them. Maybe people don't feel the messages, maybe they don't hear them. Maybe people need someone they can relate to, someone who is just like them, to spell it out to them. I felt like I owed it to everyone to just be heard."

Please listen to Thembi's story and learn more about drug resistant TB at a site run by another South African, TED award-winner James Nachtwey, called XDR-TB.org.

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