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Diary Gives a Face to HIV/AIDS Battle
Thembi Ngubane, who has recorded an audio diary for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” speaks of her battle with HIV/AIDS at Covel Commons on Monday. (Photo by Jennifer Huang, Daily Bruin senior staff)

Diary Gives a Face to HIV/AIDS Battle

Woman records experience on radio to bring patients hope, erase stigma attached to illness.

Ngubane's story brought the audience to its feet Monday night, cheering and clapping for what some called her courage and resilience in the face of AIDS.


This article was first published in the Daily Bruin.

By Easter Khaw, Daily Bruin contributor

Thembi Ngubane is just one face in a sea of millions in South Africa affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. But it is her voice that is bringing the realities of the virus' impact to the United States.

The 21-year-old Ngubane has been recording her day-to-day life and battle with AIDS for National Public Radio's popular show "All Things Considered" since she was 19. The series, "Thembi's AIDS Diary: A Year in the Life of a South African Teenager," first aired April 19 and attracts 11.5 million listeners a week.

"I thought it would not happen to me," Ngubane said. "I was afraid of how people would look at me."

Ngubane, her boyfriend Melikhaya and "Diary" producer Joe Richman came to UCLA for the fourth stop on a five-city U.S. tour that began April 18. The event took place Monday in the Covel Commons Grand Horizon Room, and was sponsored by the Friends of the Treatment Action Campaign, Artists for a New South Africa, the James S. Coleman African Studies Center and Radio Diaries.

When she began recording her diary, the stigma of AIDS was still strong in Khayelitsha, the South African township she lives in, partly due to ignorance about the disease.

"There are a lot of (people) who are sick, but do not disclose because they are afraid of discrimination," Ngubane said.

She said many people, despite HIV/AIDS education, are wary off conventional treatment of the virus, which includes antiretroviral medication. Some are scared the conventional treatment will make them more ill, and prefer more traditional medicines, which can often worsen their condition.

"People believe what they want to believe," Ngubane said. "Some people do not want to believe that ARVs help HIV."

Ngubane herself initially resisted the idea of going to a hospital because she was afraid of how people would think of her. Though she told her boyfriend about her illness, she held off on telling her mother for several months and waited even longer to tell her father.

"I'd seen (AIDS) happen to other people," Ngubane said. "At first, I was scared of death because I thought I was going to die immediately."

However, she eventually became too sick to avoid seeing a doctor and went to a hospital after much urging from her boyfriend and her mother. Since beginning her recorded diary, she has become more open about her illness in the hope that others will get tested and treated.

Ngubane, now in a two-year relationship with her boyfriend, has had a healthy baby who was protected from the virus during birth by the administration of certain drugs during labor. Though she will have to take ARVs for the rest of her life to combat the disease, Ngubane remains hopeful for the future, as do many who have heard her story.

"ARVs have done a good work in Khayelitsha," Ngubane said. "A lot of people have come out to get tested because now there is hope."

With millions of listeners every week, the success and impact of "Thembi's AIDS Diary" seems to have surprised even the show's producer.

"It started out as something small and sort of snowballed out of our control," Richman said.

Richman has created several other radio series in a similar format, and worked on the duPont-Columbia Award-winning "Mandela: An Audio History."

"AIDS is the perfect issue ... to use this style," Richman said. "It's not just a faceless issue. It's a voiceless issue."

Ngubane's story brought the audience to its feet Monday night, cheering and clapping for what some called her courage and resilience in the face of AIDS.

"It was very touching to (see) her inner strength," said Armine Kourouyan, an employee at the UCLA Center for Public Health and Disasters. "(She's) not letting it hold her down."