As I prepare to write this blogpost about Thembi, I don’t even know where to start. How do you put someone who’s so dynamic, with such an infectious laugh and a hug that just makes you want to squeeze tighter, into black and white words that cannot possibly do her justice? It feels like an impossible task. In order to begin, it seems necessary to first lay the groundwork by describing the day when we met her and how amazing it all was.
We’re making a video for the CDC, and from the beginning we pictured it being incredibly empowering, with someone (preferably a woman) who knew (s)he could do anything (s)he wanted, without letting a disease hold him/her back. It felt like we could never find someone to fill that role. No one would ever live up to the person we wanted to interview to create this video that we’d imagined. The CDC set up this interview two hours away, and when we got in the car at 8 AM, I’ll admit I was starting to feel like it probably wouldn’t be worth it. We listened to horrible techno music in the car (so sorry to our driver, Sinzo, who probably played that music because he loved it), and when we finally got to the KFC where we were meeting Thembi, I was mostly excited to escape from the horrible car music and walk around.
She texted us and told us she wouldn’t be there for another hour. More dread set in. Sinzo asked the KFC cashier if there were any places nearby that were landmarks or anywhere we could get B-roll. The cashier told him about a place, and we got in the car to drive even more. We had to stop every fifteen minutes or so to ask for directions, but when we finally got to the mysterious place, it was absolutely beautiful. We were told a guide would come to show us where to go to get to the top of this mountain and see the beautiful river that went through Swaziland and part of South Africa. When he came over, he hilariously pointed to some white arrows that would show us how to get up through the mountain, while saying that he would not be coming with us. We followed the white arrows like he said, and there was a beautiful view without any need to get to the top of the mountain to find it. It was all around us.
We then had to get back into the car and rush to the KFC to meet Thembi because, at this point, we were the ones who were going to be late. When we pulled up, she was standing outside in a colorful dress and bright green sweater, with a huge smile on her face. She hugged each and every one of us and started talking about how she couldn’t sleep the night before because she was so nervous to meet us. The rest of the group went inside to get a drink, and she told me how much she appreciated us touching her because she’d dealt with such bad stigma that even her own family wouldn’t touch her, much less give her a hug. She told me that she was going to adopt me, and I was her child now. I was very excited about it because I was already captivated by her energy.
She brought us to her home, and before she said anything else, she told me that she was going to have to teach me to catch and clean her chickens if she was going to adopt me (I was more than happy to catch chickens for Thembi). She then began telling us all about her story, and despite the amount of stigma for her HIV status that she received from her family members and community, she was incredibly resilient throughout her entire treatment. She told us that she buys herself a black forest cake every year on July 28th in order to commemorate another year of health since she started treatment in 2000. She would point up to a mountain and say that she could climb to the top of it if she wanted to because she was now that healthy. After the interview, she had me take a picture with her son and told him that I’m his sister now. I aspire to be the way she is: smiling and enjoying life to its fullest while encouraging everyone else around her to do the same through example. Her story was inspiring, but more than that, she was incredibly inspiring as a person. So anyway, this blog post is just to tell my mom that I’m moving to Swaziland to live with Thembi. Feel free to visit us!