Remembering Thembi, an advocate for youth living with AIDS

June 10, 2009 at 5:21 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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thembi radio diairies

Last year I wrote about meeting Thembi, a young woman living with AIDS in South Africa who streams a radio diary.   She died this week.

The journalist who helped her start her radio diary wrote this in remembrance:

Thembi thought about death almost every day. Yet she was the most alive person I’ve ever met. She sometimes asked me why I chose her to do an audio diary about her life. But I feel like she chose me.

Thembi had been struggling off and on with TB. A week ago she learned that she had multi-drug resistant TB. She died Thursday night in the hospital.  She was 24.

Thembi gave me, and many of us, a lesson in courage and in embracing the craziness of life – good and bad. She was brave and open about living with AIDS at a time when most South Africans were quiet about the epidemic. She thought the virus should be scared of her, rather than the other way around. She drew pictures of her virus. She talked to it in the mirror. She gave it orders.

Thembi had a short life. But it was a full one by any measure. She had a child. She found a soul mate in her longtime boyfriend, Melikhaya. Her story was heard by millions of people in a dozen countries and five languages. On her tour  of the United States, she met Bill Clinton and then-Senator Barak Obama. She traveled to Germany and India as a Unicef ambassador. She was a contestant in an African reality TV show. In South Africa, she became a role model for young people living with HIV. She experienced the hard edges of life in ways that I still find hard to fathom.
I remember when Thembi was invited to address the South African Parliament. “Accept that AIDS is here,” she told the country’s leaders. But life is a mix of cosmic and mundane. The next day, Thembi was back to her normal life: standing in line at the clinic for antiretroviral drugs, caring for her baby, and hoping for a job.

By now, we are all so familiar with the statistics. More than 5000 people die every day from AIDS. Somehow, it never seemed Thembi would be one of them.   Thembi embodied great ambition to be heard and seen. She thought it was important to speak out against stigma and  discrimination. But she was also motivated by fear: she didn’t want to be anonymous… or forgotten.

Thembi we heard you.

And we miss you.


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