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.


Thembi´s radio diary tells story of living HIV positive

August 5, 2008 at 4:16 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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On-air speaking about Living Positively

With her doll-like face, she hardly looks her 23 years, but Thembi has learned a lot about life. After she was diagnosed with HIV at age 16, she started taking a tape recorder with her everywhere. At, listeners travel with her to her first visit to the doctor, and hear when she learns about the decline of her T-cell count. The stories cover her progression to full-blown AIDS, starting ARV treatment, and finally giving birth to a daughter.

Presenting her story at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City, she talks about how keeping a diary empowered her. “Ever since I knew my status my life has changed for the better. Ever since I started my diary I have felt more confident and comfortable and I am an inspiration to other young people.”

In a conference of thousands of experts, the most powerful presentations still come from personal testimony. In one of her entries, she reflects on the future.

I’m just imagining what a world would look like without me in it. I’m not scared of dying but of leaving my baby behind. I want to see her grow a little bigger. HIV will try to rule my life on the inside but outside I will be boss. I want to study and have a good job, I want to go on with my life.

Beyond the radio, Thembi also writes a blog. Attending a recent concert hosted by the South African government, she reflects below on how AIDS messages still don´t effectively reach young people at risk.

I felt like those images on those big screens with infected people had nothing to do with me. It reminded me of high school. When they would show pictures of thin, poor orphans that look like they are dying, and try to scare you out of having sex. But it never works because young, South African, at-risk kids do not see themselves in those images. They cannot imagine that it can happen to them.

Her shows have been used as a teaching tool all over the world and aired on National Public Radio in the U.S., and in the U.K., Australia and Canada, reaching more than 50 million people.

Pick one: laptop, internet, radio or cell phone

February 16, 2008 at 9:45 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I am still thinking about a poll I saw on Communication Initiative’s technology for development website.  It asked, which of the following technologies has the most potential for accelerating progress to reduce poverty? Film/Video, Internet, Interpersonal discussion, lap top, cell phone, print media, television, radio, wireless or other. 

There are 213 votes so far, and cell phones are leading with 23% or 50 votes, Radio with 23% and 48 votes, Internet with 20% at 40 votes, TV with 10% at 22 votes, Interpersonal discussion at 8% with 18 votes.   Laptops only have 3% with 5 votes!

I would love to see thousands of people take this survey from all over the world, and have their results disaggregated by location, as well as age, gender and occupation.   I voted for Internet, because in my job I have to connect to people around the world daily, and this is the only way I hear from them, whether by email or skype.  But, the internet as a communication lifeline is still tenuous, and it only works if I have met the people before, i.e. through “interpersonal communication”, clearly valued by poll takers.   After you meet and form a connection, the trick becomes keeping in touch.  I personally do so through sending out an e-newsletter every two months that lists opportunities and resources useful to people working with NGOs on the ground.   In a way it does not matter if they read my newsletter, it matters that they see my name in their inbox.  After I send the newsletter I frequently get requests for help or news from the people on my list. 

 I think the lap top numbers of this poll are telling.   People do not need their own computer necessarily (though those of us in the US could not imagine life with out it), they need money to go to an internet cafe, and they need a fast connection when they get there.   A lap top is not so useful if no one can help you fix it, if you have to worry about it getting stolen, or if there is no internet access for you to plug into.   In another post I will have to do some sleuthing to figure out how the $100 lap top, (“One Laptop per child”) program is going, and how they are going to adjust the machine to fit the resources people have on the ground.  

The fact that radio numbers are so high make me want to ditch this blog for a radio show.  From my seat in the U.S., radio is not seen as cutting edge, and therefore is often forgotten in the development discourse that I am exposed to.  But to people living in remote rural areas, a radio is their only tie to the world outside their village.  Therefore it becomes a huge part of their education and socialization.  I have read some exciting studies about using radio for reconciliation in Rwanda (soap operas where people discuss their traumas), and as a means (also through soap operas) to share information about sexual health and HIV/AIDS.   In Sierra Leone, the only national radio station is currently managed by the UN peacekeeping mission. As the mission prepares to withdraw, a vital task becomes passing on the radio networks to civilian management that can maintain all the transmission towers, as well as produce content that benefits the whole of the country.  

As I prepare to visit Rwanda next month, my contact has asked me to bring him a used laptop for $200 in my suitcase. “No problem” I said, envisioning tracking one down on   I just hope it doesn’t break too quickly after I give it to him.  I told him that you can now buy a copy machine/fax/scanner/color printer for between $100-$200.  He was very interested, and now I have definitely committed myself to a full suitcase.  I only hope these new machines have a decent shelf life.  I think these machines could definitely offer a lot to development, since in Africa, you generally go to a telecenter to preform tasks of printing, faxing, scanning.  I would love to see broad distribution of these machines there, it could really help small businesses and organizations. 

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