Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Life

On World AIDS Day, Remembering Thembi Ngubane

Thembi Ngubane

Thembi Ngubane, who recorded a radio diary of her life living with AIDS in South Africa.

“I am the one who has hands and feet and mind. And it’s only something that is inside my blood. So it will try to rule inside. But outside I’ll be the boss.” 

– Thembi Ngubane


World AIDS Day is December 1. It is a day to support people living with HIV and to celebrate the lives of those who have died from the virus.  For me, it’s a day to remember Thembi Ngubane.

I first met Thembi when she was 19 and living in one of the largest townships in South Africa. She was willing to speak out publically at a time when few South Africans were brave enough to say, “I have AIDS.”  I gave Thembi a tape recorder to document a year in her life. Her story – Thembi’s AIDS Diary – aired on NPR in 2006.

Thembi made more of a mark on me than any diarist I have ever worked with. She was less than five feet tall, but she had a big presence: brave, open and funny, with an amazing smile. It was sometimes difficult to remember that she was sick. She used to say her virus should be scared of her rather than the other way around.

The broadcast of her diary was just the beginning of a remarkable journey for Thembi. She went on to present her story in high schools, colleges, and clinics in the U.S. and South Africa. Along the way she met former President Bill Clinton and then-Senator Barack Obama. She spoke in front of the South African Parliament at a time when the country was doing shamefully little to fight its AIDS crisis. South Africa’s Sunday Times called her “one of South Africa’s own post-1976 heroines.”

Thembi died on June 5, 2009 of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis. She was 24. We’re remembering her on our podcast this week, along with a special introduction to her diary by Bishop Desmond Tutu. You can also see a beautiful animation of Thembi’s story by artist Jisoo Kim, and visit Thembi’s website to learn all about her efforts to fight the stigma of AIDS in her too-brief life.

A final note: Thembi’s daughter, Onwabo, turned eight on November 29. She’s HIV negative, healthy, and has a big personality in a tiny body…. just like her mom.


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