Changing the face of AIDS in Zimbabwe

PRETORIA, South Africa — Lynde Francis was a Zimbabwean who turned despair into hope.

First her own, upon learning she was HIV-positive back in 1986, when AIDS was a death sentence in Zimbabwe and elsewhere, she was determined not to give up and she blazed a path of optimism and health for herself, and for many others.

Those were the dark, lonely days when AIDS was seen as a plague, when African governments were silent about the epidemic, when families rejected HIV-positive relatives. Antiretrovirals were a just a dream.

Francis's initial reaction was fear, rage, denial and depression: “I was angry with God, with the government, with my partner and with myself,” Francis said.

She made a will, named guardians for her children and obtained a Final Exit kit — pills to commit suicide — for she dreaded the opportunistic infections of AIDS.

Twenty years later, the kit was still lying around in a drawer in her home, a souvenir “past its sell-off date,” she said with a laugh in 2007. And Francis was “still fat and healthy, past my own sell-off date.”

Her keys to life were three books about food and health lent to her by a business associate, a vegan macrobiotic. Correct nutrition and spiritual well-being was the only anti-AIDS therapy available then in Africa.

Francis bet on a balanced life to live longer. She got healthier. She gained weight. She regained her feistiness. She thought a lot about AIDS and people and Africa.

It was a lonely battle then. Zimbabwe's general population had very little information but a great deal of fear. 

In 1991, when her partner committed suicide, she felt free to disclose she was HIV-positive in the media — the first white Zimbabwean to do so.

Instantly, she gave AIDS a new face: An attractive, middle-class woman, a mother, a business owner, the country’s first registered female journeyman, a concert promoter with 25 years in the music industry, a staple in the concert and party circuits, who lived in a comfortable, rambling house in a leafy suburb of Harare.

“I live with HIV and so can you,” was her message. AIDS no longer had a scary, emaciated, black face in Zimbabwe, where about a quarter of the population of 12 million was infected.

Working from her sitting room, Francis turned her home into The Center, where HIV-positive people and their loved ones found support and advice.

At the time, hers was a revolutionary message. Live positively and you will live longer. Eat nutritious local food. Share your grief. Manage your health. Know your status. Have safe sex. Have hope. Avoid self-pity, despair and victimhood. Take control of your life.

 

Francis named her holistic approach to AIDS the Long Term Survival Skills, and she designed it to build upon the African concept of health as harmony of body, soul and environment. As African healers say: Treat a person, not only a disease. Francis taught the survival skills to thousands of HIV-positive people in Zimbabwe, then across Africa and eventually around the world.

At first dozens, then hundreds, of Zimbabweans came to the Center and found support and encouragement to continue their lives. When she got funding she made sure the entire staff of The Center was made up of people who were HIV positive. It was a revolutionary approach.

Soon Francis catapulted into the international arena as an adviser, a thinker, a strategist, a lobbyist and a powerful public speaker for AIDS organizations, addressing large conferences and advising NGOs and networks. She co-authored seminal works such as "The Positive Woman’s Survival Kit." She advocated for people living with HIV to be part of the response. She fought for women’s rights. Lynde Francis was at the cutting edge of positive treatment for AIDS, and she was always rooted in Africa.

She could have taken a well-paying job in an international AIDS bureacucracy, had top medical care and lived in Geneva.

Yet she always returned to her beloved Zimbabwe, even as it spiralled into disaster. She kept the Center going, offering support and encouragement to desperate Zimbabweans, because that mission was her spiritual center. She was happiest teaching humble women and men to become agents of their own health. Empowering them, in jargon.

She was no nutty garlic-and-olive oil quack. When antiretroviral drugs appeared, she lobbied hard with activists worldwide to get the drugs and she helped design their rollout in an African reality. She adapted her mantra — good nutrition and stress management — to support ARV therapy.

But not for herself. Francis eschewed ARVs with cheerful stubbornness, while keeping healthy with her holistic approach.

Bitten by a poisonous spider in 2003, she went into a coma for six weeks and was flown to Britain where the doctors put her on ARVs. By 2005, she was healthy, traded her waist-long hair for a smart short cut … and she jettisoned the ARVs.

Francis lived by what she preached: ARVs are the last resort, and not the solution for Africa, where only one-third of the people who need the drugs get them. She advocated that a change in behavior and good nutrition are the first line of defense.

She turned her formidable mind to wider issues: The ailing public health systems of Africa, gender inequality and development as it entwines with AIDS: “You can’t fight AIDS if people don’t have a future to invest in.”

In March, she celebrated 23 years of living with HIV. Her health, though, was failing: A brain tumor, a perforated ulcer, meningitis. Lynde Francis died on March 31 in Harare. She is mourned by thousands in Zimbabwe, but she leaves a legacy of determined optimism. She refused to live “on despair and victimhood” and inspired thousands to do the same.

Lynde Francis — AIDS activist and nutritionist, builder, mother of two children and four adopted children, grandmother of six — 8 November 1947-31 March 2009.

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