The late summer wind howled as I walked along the quiet mid-week streets of Obs – short for Observatory – the animated student suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, across the bay from Robben Island. At night and on weekends, the neighborhood bars and restaurants were bustling with life, great food and live music. But during the week it seemed everyone was either away at work or asleep nursing hangovers. I suspect it was a combination of the two.
As I’d done for almost a month, I caught the train into the center of the city for work preparing a conference on HIV. The day before, my friend and I had taken the train in the opposite direction for a much-needed day of R&R. We headed south towards Simon’s Town and watched small children play with penguins as we sat on the sand in front of the iconic changing huts at Muizenberg that provided a backdrop to the beach.
That was my first trip to South Africa and, for that matter, the continent of Africa. It was 1995 and the world was embracing the leadership of the remarkable man who, after 95 years (he would have turned 96 this week), was finally been truly set free in his passing last December. This was his South Africa; elected less than a year before, Nelson Mandela was President. This was not the apartheid era South Africa that I had vowed to never visit. I refused to be one of those travelers who visited but had their passport stamped on a removable page. No, this was a new free South Africa where I felt accepted. Where I was allowed to travel.
The freedom to travel to Cape Town was doubly symbolic because three years prior – the same year the world watched Mr. Mandela lead the South African Olympic team into the games – I was told that I had HIV. I was 28 years old in 1992 and was in the running for two international jobs; one with the Peace Corps and another to teach English in then Czechoslovakia. The last step to complete my application process for both positions was to submit an HIV test. An HIV-negative test, which I could no longer provide. As those opportunities slipped away, so too, I feared, was my chance to travel the world freely.
Even today, nearly 60 countries continue impose restrictions, or outright bans, for people living with HIV. This injustice, and countless others, led me to become an activist for people – and in particular, women – living with HIV. In college a professor once told me that as an educated woman, it would be my duty to speak for those who could not, for those who would not have access to decision makers. I took her words to heart and they became louder and louder as I charted my path with HIV and realized how many things I could no longer do. I have not been silenced yet and will keep speaking up until my last breath.
While I never met Mandela personally – although I did get to hear him speak live – I felt a connection to him. Having followed his life for years from a distance, he gave me inspiration and fed my courage to be proactive in a struggle I’d been told I was sure to lose. The battles he fought were a million times bigger than the ones I was scraping up against, but he was one of my heroes. If he could survive all that he had endured, and still come out fighting and proud, then maybe so could I.
In the end, that trip was the first of many to Africa and beyond. I am eternally grateful for the opportunities I have had and have great respect for the people who have paved the paths before me that have allowed me to travel this vast planet we call home. And I owe a huge debt of gratitude to those activists who continue to blaze their trail and in doing so, make life more manageable for people living with HIV.
Nelson Mandela will always remain an inspiration to me and this week, as the world recognizes the day of his birth and remembers his legacy, I, too, bow my head in his honor and thank him for truly making the world – my world – a better place.