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One Year Later: AIDS in an African Town
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One Year Later: AIDS in an African Town

One Year Later: AIDS in an African Town

One Year Later: AIDS in an African Town
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A year ago, Thembi Ngubane's audio diary on living with HIV in a South-African township aired on All Things Considered. Ngubane talks with Farai Chideya about her recent two-week trip around South Africa, where she shared her story.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And that's not the only update we have from Africa. You might have caught this audio diary a year ago on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Ms. THEMBI NGUBANE: Every morning when I wake up, I'll run over to my drawer, take out a mirror and look at myself. I say hello HIV, you trespasser. You're in my body. You have to obey the rules. You have to respect me, and if you don't hurt me, I won't hurt you. You mind your business, I'll mind mine. Then I'll give you a ticket when your time comes.

CHIDEYA: Thembi Ngubane is a young South African woman from the township of Khayelitsha. She kept an audio diary about living with HIV. Last year, Thembi worked with independent producer Joe Richman to bring the audio diary to listeners in the United States. And last month, they spent two weeks touring South Africa, sharing Thembi's story with people in that country. When I spoke with Thembi, I asked her to describe her journey.

Ms. NGUBANE: Well, I've been touring South Africa for two weeks and it's been a great response, nothing like I expected. Everything went great. I mean, I went to schools, I went to colleges, I went to clinics and people were responding, yeah.

CHIDEYA: So what was the best moment of your trip?

Ms. NGUBANE: Well, the best moment was when I went to this clinic, the Dipene(ph) clinic in Khata(ph). And it was nothing like I expected, actually, because it was a clinic that is built on a place that used to be a damned place.

So the view of that place, it made me think like sometimes we're trapped in our own small world and we think that things are worse for us. But in other ways, things are worse for other people also. So I was (unintelligible) to be there especially that clinic speaking to HIV people that are living there and also the people that are really afraid to start to go on ARVs.

CHIDEYA: ARVs, antiretroviral drugs is what you're talking about.

Ms. NGUBANE: Yes.

CHIDEYA: And those essentially saved your life. But, at first, you didn't want to take them, did you?

Ms. NGUBANE: Yes, I did want to. That's the problem. Some of the people still have (unintelligible) also, mostly in that area. They don't want to go on ARVs but they have to. So when I came to visit them, I changed some of their minds to go on ARVs.

CHIDEYA: Now, you came here to the U.S. with Joe Richman of Radio Diaries who produced your AIDS diary. And you came here, you spoke to huge crowds in the United States. Was it tougher to go back to South Africa and speak to people in your country than it was to speak to people in the U.S.?

Ms. NGUBANE: Yes, it was tougher. Because here in my country, I know black people think about HIV and AIDS. There's a lot of fear and there's a lot of discrimination. So it was very hard for me to come back and speak about it, because no one speaks about it here. So it was different from the U.S., but people also here were open-minded. From my point of view, I think maybe they needed someone to speak out for them also so that they can be motivated and listen and also speak for themselves.

CHIDEYA: Thembi, you recently had an opportunity to speak to South Africa's political leaders. Tell us about that and what it was like.

Ms. NGUBANE: Well, it was scary and I was very nervous. I kind of didn't like the idea of going to parliament, but since I was speaking to people - lots of people - I felt like they need to hear the story in either way. But I was very nervous, especially going to see Congress, which I normally don't talk about politics and also don't address people like them. It was very difficult for me, but as soon as I sat there, I just took them as people also. I just spoke what was on my mind.

There were only human - they're very anxious(ph), you could - I could feel the room that they were really into the story.

CHIDEYA: Now we're going to hear a little bit of what you had to say to the members of parliament.

Ms. NGUBANE: All the people are all out there, all the advertisement. Everything is on TV. Everything is on radio. Here's your condom. Stay away from HIV. Save your life. Say this, say that. Nobody is listening.

But it was different when I stepped out there as a human being, but I just stand up there and do something different. I said I have AIDS, which no one does. And everyone at school, they are all shocked and sometimes they're like, we don't believe you. And a student to take out from their questions - they really understand, but they need someone that understands them.

CHIDEYA: Now how are you and your child and your boyfriend doing? Because when you became pregnant, you took extra medication and very luckily you had an HIV negative daughter. How is your family?

Ms. NGUBANE: Well, my family is fine. Thanks for asking. We just came out of TB treatment for the second time for me, which I finished last week.

CHIDEYA: So you both have tuberculosis?

Ms. NGUBANE: Yes, they both treat me and my young daughter. But now we finally - we're finished with the treatment.

CHIDEYA: That must be tough to constantly realize that you're going to get new illnesses and have to fight them again and again. Do you ever feel like just giving up?

Ms. NGUBANE: Sometimes I get really frustrated by treating them and also treating the HIV. But since I understand that HIV comes with other infections, so I have to deal with them also.

CHIDEYA: So in the end, what do you hope this audio diary and your speaking tour will give to the people of South Africa?

Ms. NGUBANE: Well, I hope that it will change their minds about what they think about HIV, which is death and end of life. I just want them to see the bright side out of it, because I understand, I also know that. Teach them to fight this disease. But I think with the acknowledgement and also acceptance and also facing reality that it is here, it's going to make them think better about it.

CHIDEYA: Well, Thembi, it's great to talk to you again. Thank you so much.

Ms. NGUBANE: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: That was Thembi Ngubane, an HIV-positive woman living in South Africa. She worked with Joe Richman of Radio Diaries to produce Thembi's AIDS Diary.

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Out of Hiding, Into the World: Thembi's AIDS Diary

Out of Hiding, Into the World: Thembi's AIDS Diary
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Thembi recording her audio diary in Khayelitsha township. i

Thembi Ngubane recording her audio diary in Khayelitsha township, outside Cape Town. Melikhaya Mpumelo hide caption

toggle caption Melikhaya Mpumelo
Thembi recording her audio diary in Khayelitsha township.

Thembi Ngubane recording her audio diary in Khayelitsha township, outside Cape Town.

Melikhaya Mpumelo
Thembi recovering at her grandmother's house. i

Ngubane recovering from an illness at her grandmother's house. Melikhaya Mpumelo hide caption

toggle caption Melikhaya Mpumelo
Thembi recovering at her grandmother's house.

Ngubane recovering from an illness at her grandmother's house.

Melikhaya Mpumelo

Behind, Beyond the Diary

In an interview punctuated by much laughter and some quiet moments, Thembi Ngubane explains why she decided to participate in the project — and what she's been up to since it concluded.

AIDS in South Africa

Ngubane receives anti-retroviral drugs to treat her AIDS. But others are not as lucky. Even as the South African government has improved programs to provide crucial drugs, accessibility still is patchy across the country.

Hearing the Diary

Thembi Ngubane finds out she is HIV-positive
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Her relationship with boyfriend Melikhaya
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The medicines Ngubane must take
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A tour of the township of Khayelitsha
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Ngubane on the stigma faced by people with HIV
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Thembi Ngubane lives in one of South Africa's largest townships, a sprawling sea of houses and shacks made of wood planks, tar paper and sheets of tin.

She has a boyfriend and a close relationship with her mother and father. She is also living with AIDS.

Ngubane was 19 when she first met radio producer Joe Richman in Khayelitsha, outside Cape Town. She was among a group of South African teenagers he interviewed about AIDS in 2004. He gave her a tape recorder, and for a year, she recorded an intimate audio diary that brings listeners into her home, among her family, to witness her daily struggles and triumphs.

Ngubane introduces listeners to her boyfriend, Melikhaya — and recalls when she told him she was HIV-positive: "I thought, 'What if I've also infected him? Now I've ruined my life, and I've ruined everybody's life.'"

She chronicles how difficult it is to tell her father about her illness: "I've felt like I have disappointed you.... I thought that it was going to break you into pieces," she tells him.

And occasionally, Ngubane's frustrations overcome her: "My mother, she clothed me, fed me, raised me, and now, at the end of the day, she must also bury me. I was supposed to be the one who was going to look after her.... That is not right."

But throughout the diary, Ngubane expresses the desire she has to stop hiding her disease — and to help others stop hiding, too.

About 5 million people are HIV-positive in South Africa, and young women aged 16-25 make up 75 percent of all new infections. Ngubane's audio diary collects the intimate moments and disparate episodes of her everyday life and crafts a larger story that tells the story of the disease and its impact.

"Thembi's AIDS Diary" was produced by Joe Richman/Radio Diaries with help from Ben Shapiro, Deborah George, Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, Sue Johnson, Miyuki Jokiranta, Sean Cole, Britta Frahm, and Samantha Schongalla.

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