It's been a long time since I wrote anything. My daughter was born nine months ago today, and I'm listening to her cries right now as she fights a nap she clearly needs. At 5pm in New Hampshire on the first warm, sunny day in over a month, birds are singing and the light is corn-yellow and warm where it dapples into the room. Normally all of Isabel's cries stab me in the stomach, even when I know she's tired, even though I'm sure she's fine. Today, though, the quality of the sound is weirdly soothing, because I am alive to hear it. Because I have not died of AIDS at age 24, like beautiful Thembi Ngubane, who I had the honor of knowing for a very short time during her terribly short life.
One of the reasons its been so long since I wrote anything is MTV. I don’t watch MTV, I work for MTV. A lot. Over the years I’ve researched, written, or produced over 15 shows for the much-maligned monolith, and they were more or less all about the same thing: how not to get HIV (or pregnant, if you don’t want to be pregnant, or any other STDs, which are now so pervasive that1 in 4 sexually active people gets one before they’re 25.)
In 2006 I was producing an unusual project, comprised entirely of videos filmed by young people infected with (or affected by) HIV. The audience it was intended for had never known a time without HIV and AIDS, and the mantras of safe sex and condom use had been drummed into them from the moment they hit puberty. They were, for the most part, American; the goal of the program was to present the faces and stories of HIV’s impact on this generation, in their voices, through their eyes.
For weeks, I watched the videos as they came in. The subjects were, for the most part, amateurs with the camera, clumsy. Sometimes we couldn't hear them because they stood in the wind and whispered. Sometimes they were grainy because they filmed themselves in the dark. Jeselle, 24, started off her video diary in a quiet room of her house, and her intimate dialogue about living with HIV was interrupted by her boyfriend, off-camera, demanding that she clean the bathtub. Heather, 19, showed us her cat, her house, her grandma; "and this is me," she said, turning the camera on herself. "Heather P. Johnson. I don't know what y'all want to know about me. I'm just like everybody else." Later, she admitted that she'd sometimes had sex without telling her partner she was HIV+. Whitney confessed that she wasn’t sure she’d ever find someone to love her. William proposed to his girlfriend. She said yes.
I watched many hours of videos. Sometimes I went home and cried, from the weight of the stories of which I was now the guardian. One day I got a call from Anayansi Diaz-Cortes at Radio Diaries, an NPR show that works with people to document their lives for radio. She'd heard about our show and wanted to tell us about a young woman named Thembi. Thembi was 21, HIV+, and living in South Africa. She had made an AIDS diary for their show and would be coming to New York; were we interested in having her participate in our show? I told her I wasn't sure--we thought we might be sticking with American stories--but that I'd listen to Thembi's diary.
I listened. Thembi's voice was musical, lilting; she began her diary with her morning "prayer." She trilled the ‘r’ like a tiny, unseen bird.
"Every morning when I wake up I'll run off to my drawer, take out the mirror and look at myself...” her diary began. “I say it every day. Every time when I'm feeling angry. Like when you're angry at someone, you have that thing in you that you need to tell that someone what you feel. I say, ‘Hello HIV. You trespasser. 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 and I'll mind mine. Then i'll give you a ticket when your time comes.’" Her voice was mesmerizing, lulling. She revealed her status to her father while recording. She explained that she had gone and gotten tested after finding out that her ex-boyfriend had died too sick to speak. Halfway through, she said she had something surprising to tell the listener: she and her boyfriend had a daughter, Onwabo, who was almost a year old and, thankfully, HIV-.
We found a local cameraman who agreed to visit Thembi and help her film a little bit of her life at home in her township. When the footage came back it was hard to reconcile the eloquence and power of the voice in the diary with the stunning wisp of a girl who lived in a tin-roof shack among thousands of same in a few simple rooms she shared with her family. She gave the camera a tour of her life and a sampling of her thoughts with all the confidence of Diane Sawyer. But it was clear that Onwabo was the engine of a mighty joy that shone through Thembi’s video like a searchlight: “When I look at her, I just have a reason to live,” she said.
When Thembi came to New York City on her tour we met her in Tompkins Square Park. She wore a pink knitted beret and looked entirely at home among the superhip residents of the Lower East Side. Her boyfriend, Melikhaya, a talented photographer, took over filming duties immediately; we chatted for a few minutes and they were off on their whirlwind tour, which included speaking engagements at Cooper Union and a panel at the UN.
In her tapes from the trip, Thembi recorded herself doing all manner of things—exploring her hotel room, which was equipped to the max with endless delights like air conditioning and cable television; roaming the streets of New York; taking her daily regimen of pills; speaking to a packed hall at Cooper Union. In that address she tried to explain why she had a baby: “I thought that I didn’t have the right to have a baby because I was HIV+,” she said. “But I just wanted to have a baby so much... I just wish for a little bit more time.”
On June 5th, Thembi’s time ran out. She died of drug-resistant TB. I think of her 4-year old daughter, her boyfriend and soulmate, left to live without her light. Thembi was, according to her diary, not afraid of dying. But she wanted to be remembered. And she will be. Radio Diaries says that her story was heard, all told, 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.”
I remember you, Thembi. I might think of you every day for the rest of my life, when I look at my daughter’s face, experience her laughter, wince when she hurts herself and cry when she hurts me. I promise to try and be grateful for every minute I am here to listen to her cries, to see her grow. Thank you for the grace you brought to your time here, for the courage you exhibited and gave to so many others, and for breaking the silence with the song of your voice.
To listen to Thembi's AIDS diary, go to http://www.aidsdiary.org
To see Thembi's part in the MTV show, go to this link:
(Her story starts about 2 minutes in. Please watch her.)
And if you are able, please consider making even a very small donation toward the fund that Radio Diaries--a wonderful NPR show that broadcast Thembi's story--has set up to help care for her daughter in the years to come.
Here is the link to make a donation for Onwabo: