Opening up about AIDS

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Thembi Ngubane stands in front of her mirror every morning in her South Africa shanty and recites her prayer.

"Hello, HIV," she says. "You trespass. You are 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."

Ngubane is an old soul in a child's body, a slip of a woman barely 5 feet tall with wide eyes, cropped hair and a chin piercing. The 20-year-old lives in Khayelitsha, a sprawling slum outside Cape Town, where she met radio documentary producer Joe Richman, interviewing people in the area affected by HIV.

"She really stood out," Richman said recently, mostly because of her morning mantra. "It really struck me, it stayed with me after I left her."

Richman gave Ngubane a large black tape recorder and microphone to record her life for a year.

The result is "Thembi's AIDS Diary: A Year in the Life of a South African Teenager," produced by Richman's Radio Diaries. It aired recently on NPR's All Things Considered and is available on the Radio Diaries Web site.

Ngubane said at first she thought it was going to be fun, but she soon found it difficult to sling the machine over her shoulder every day, recording intimate thoughts and persuading others to go on tape. "I had to record myself over and over again and hear myself over and over again which was hard," she said. "As time went by I just wanted to quit. I think it was hard work."

She was paid a stipend per tape, plus she received some money from the NPR broadcast for her work.

Ngubane said although at least five million South Africans are HIV positive, not many will talk about it. "Everyone hides. Everyone was like 'What are you doing? You can't just talk about this. How are the people going to look at you?'"

But she believes it is important to keep AIDS and HIV out in the open, and she hopes by telling her story she can affect others. "Maybe by doing this, I am helping someone else who is in denial, or someone else who is ignorant about the situation," she said.

Richman had the hefty job of listening to a year's worth of tape and slicing it down to a 22-minute documentary with no outside narration. "It's one of the saddest parts of the whole process because there's just so much stuff you have to leave on the proverbial cutting room floor," he said.

Richman weeded through, cutting until it started to take shape as a peek into her life. He looked mostly for two things: good quality tape and scenes that unfolded in front of the microphone.

Like the moment Ngubane finally tells her father that she has AIDS. With the sound of the rain pelting her father's tin roof shack in the background, she manages to choke out the words.

From the diary, listeners hear her warm, powerful voice. We learn how she was infected by an ex-boyfriend and didn't know until he died. We hear her interact with residents, with her mother, and with her daughter, who is not infected with the virus. Ngubane gets sick, and eventually heals thanks to antiretroviral medication. Moments with her boyfriend Melkihaya Pumela, whom she infected, are sweet.

"Radio is a perfect medium for this kind of story," Richman said. "You can really get a feel for someone else's life that you wouldn't meet otherwise."

NPR host Ira Glass said the diary style is poignant. "Hearing it in her words, it makes it all the more real," he said. "It's something that's hard to get across in print, hard to do in any other way. ... We all hear about AIDS in Africa, but this makes it real."

Ngubane's boyfriend Pumela said some people thought she was doing it to become famous, or because she was vain. But he thinks she managed to win over most of them. And either way, the product is elegant.

"It was hard for her, always carrying that thing around," he said. "But in the end, I think she did something very, very good."

Ngubane is returning to South Africa May 10 after a monthlong tour in the United States, and will speak along with Bill Clinton and others at a world conference on AIDS over the summer.

She says she's feeling healthy.

"Oh, I'm fine," she said. "I'm not going to let AIDS get the better of me."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: