'Yesterday': The Saga of an African AIDS Victim

The Oscar-nominated film Yesterday provides a contemporary look at the HIV/AIDS pandemic, told through the life of a wife and mother living with AIDS in Africa. Farai Chideya speaks with the star of the film, Leleti Khumalo.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Actress Leleti Khumalo is best known as a soap star in her native South Africa, but in the late 1980s, she made a name for herself in this country with a Tony Award-winning performance in the Broadway musical "Sarafina!" The play outlined the battle children of Soweto waged against the brutal apartheid government. A few years later, she was introduced to a larger American audience through the film version that starred Whoopi Goldberg.

(Soundbite of "Sarafina!")

Ms. WHOOPI GOLDBERG: (As Mary Masembuko) Hey, Sarafina.

Ms. LELETI KHUMALO: (As Sarafina) Are you all right, mistress?

Ms. GOLDBERG: (As Mary Masembuko) No, but what else is new? You know, I liked your idea for the show. Mandela free! It would make a great show. Only...

Ms. KHUMALO: (As Sarafina) Only they won't like it.

Ms. GOLDBERG: (As Mary Masembuko) No, they won't.

Ms. KHUMALO: (As Sarafina) So you're saying we shouldn't do it?

Ms. GOLDBERG: (As Mary Masembuko) I'm saying it will make trouble, and right now they're looking for the troublemakers.

Ms. KHUMALO: (As Sarafina) I know who the troublemakers are, mistress.

GORDON: One of Khumalo's more recent projects is an Oscar-nominated movie called "Yesterday." The film gives us a contemporary glimpse into the tragic everyday life of an AIDS sufferer in South Africa. It airs on HBO tomorrow night in observance of World AIDS Day. Khumalo took time out from the shooting on the set of a South African soap opera to explain to NPR's Farai Chideya why "Yesterday" is such a personal project.

Ms. KHUMALO: The director came to me and told me about the story, and he said he don't see anybody who can play it better than me. And because it's going to be done in Zulu, I'm a Zulu myself. And when I read the script, I said to myself, `This I have to do, especially for the women in the rural areas, you know, because they suffer a lot.'

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

In the film, you really depict village life where people gossip and when you don't have but so many people around, that gossip can be very harmful because you lose your community.

Ms. KHUMALO: I know. I know. It...

CHIDEYA: Well, tell us a little bit more about the character in this story. Tell us who Yesterday is.

Ms. KHUMALO: When I go to the rural areas, I spend time with women and just sit with them and ask them about their daily lives, you know, how do they cope. So when they told me about Yesterday, I said to myself, `I'm going to choose one of the women that I usually sit with when I'm in the rural areas.'

CHIDEYA: It's set in KwaZulu-Natal. It's all in Zulu with subtitles. Were you afraid that other audiences wouldn't be able to follow a story in another language, particularly an African language?

Ms. KHUMALO: Not at all. I wasn't afraid at all. You know, even if you don't understand the language itself, you can be able to read the emotions that are packed in the movie says everything, you know? And the fact that it talks about real life, it's something that is happening in the rural areas. That's the life that they're living as I'm speaking to you right now. So it is very close to my heart.

CHIDEYA: It seems that many of your roles have dealt with important social issues in South Africa: AIDS, liberation struggles. Why do you choose the roles that you do?

Ms. KHUMALO: I think I choose the parts that make sense to me, you know? And I think I'm very lucky in that way, because in South Africa, there are not enough work for actors and actresses. So I think I'm lucky in that way, to be able to choose, because others just take whatever comes their way, you know?

CHIDEYA: And how do you identify with women who have contracted AIDS from their husbands? It's a big problem, not just in Africa, but even in the United States where a lot of women who are faithful to the men in their lives end up contracting sexually transmitted diseases and having to be the one sometimes to break the news to their partners.

Ms. KHUMALO: That's a very sensitive issue, you know, because most of the time that's how it happens, you know, in the rural areas. I think men especially are taking advantage of women in the rural areas. If somebody respects you, like, too much, you tend to take an advantage of that. And I think that's what they do, you know? And it's very sad.

CHIDEYA: What do you think would make a difference? More condoms and prevention? More education? More government involvement? What is it going to take to really change the epidemic?

Ms. KHUMALO: I think more education and more being responsible in the men side of it. And if they can have, like, more knowledge...

CHIDEYA: Yeah.

Ms. KHUMALO: ...people in the rural areas, because they don't understand at all about HIV and AIDS.

CHIDEYA: One last question. Are there any plans to try to show this in the rural areas, given that a lot of people don't have televisions and so on?

Ms. KHUMALO: They have done a couple of screenings. They choose a hall and then they put a projector, and then they can screen the movie. They have done that a lot.

CHIDEYA: Were you ever at one of those screenings?

Ms. KHUMALO: Yes.

CHIDEYA: How did people react?

Ms. KHUMALO: It's so amazing. People loved it and it taught a lot of people about HIV and AIDS, especially the youth and of course the women in the rural areas.

CHIDEYA: Well, those are two groups of people who definitely need to know more about preventing AIDS. We've been speaking with Leleti Khumalo. She is the star of "Generations," one of the leading soap operas in South Africa, and also of the film "Yesterday."

Leleti, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. KHUMALO: Thank you very much for inviting me.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya. "Yesterday" airs on HBO through December.

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