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Changing the face of AIDS in Zimbabwe

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


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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