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Changing the face of AIDS in Zimbabwe

Lynde Francis broke AIDS stigma by going public, opening drop-in center.

Lynde Francis, an outspoken Zimbabwean AIDS activist who was the first to go public that she was HIV positive. She turned her home into a drop-in center where people with HIV and AIDS got counseling and support in nutrition and stress management. (Photo courtesy of Ondine Francis)

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.