It was World Aids Day last week, and Pope Benedict XVI’s retraction on condoms did not come a day too soon. Benedict matters: across the world, including Britain, to an extent, some religions help fuel the HIV pandemic by rejecting condoms.
In Britain, a quarter of some 90,000 people with HIV don’t know they have the virus, recent figures show. Stigma and lack of awareness are partly to blame. The British news reminded me of Mildred Mpundu, a celebrated Zambian journalist who died a week to World Aids Day three years ago.
Over the many years that I worked with her around the world, I saw Mildred slipping: a cough wouldn’t go away, there were recurrent stomach upsets, fatigue and alarming weight loss. She was desperately ill —everyone saw it, no one spoke. Mildred herself was in denial: that’s what stigma does to you.
In July 2007 I was in Lusaka and decided to look up Mildred — friends hadn’t heard from her in a long time. She called me to a suburban market, where I found her, in the silhouette of the car’s headlight a thin, stooping figure. She was sitting on the steps of a shop, one hand resting on a crudely-hewn stick — a rough wooden beam really — the other holding on to her small child. Later, in the darkness of her incomplete house — then a cold, windowless, doorless shell of three rooms — she bravely ended my misery by declaring she wanted to tell her story to the world.
I alerted a reporter at a popular Sunday tabloid, and Mildred ‘came out’ soon after on its front page. Having suffered years in the shadow of half-
knowledge, she began telling her story in columns and radio shows in a country where AIDS had cut life expectancy to a tragic 39 years.
This was the year when the number of Indians with HIV was set to be cut dramatically, lowering global figures. But just when it seemed we would all fall into familiar complacency, I received an excited sms from Mildred: ex-president Kenneth Kaunda had come visiting.