No politician in Zambia had ever gone public with their HIV status when Princess Kasune Zulu, then a newly-elected MP, stood up in parliament to say she was HIV positive while urging fellow lawmakers to get tested.
“I want to call on all my fellow lawmakers to lead in the fight against HIV and AIDS. I, therefore, encourage all MPs and lawmakers to consider publicly taking an HIV test and hopefully, coming out publicly about their HIV status,” Zulu said in 2016 to the shock of many in Zambia, a country that has about 1.2 million people living with HIV.
Zulu, herself, discovered she was HIV positive in 1997. “I felt like a ray of light had hit me after testing positive and I shouted ‘Praise God!’. Such a reaction was not humanly possible even for me to understand but I looked at it as an avenue to change the lives of others,” Zulu told the BBC in 2016.
A year after testing positive, she decided to go public about her status, though her family, church as well as her husband (who she suspects gave her the virus) were against the idea.
“When I realised that I was HIV-positive, I realised that I had a responsibility to spread the news from how it can be contracted, how it can be prevented and also breaking the stigma and the silence.”
So the mother of three, in 1998, got involved in activism; she first volunteered in hospitals where AIDS patients were admitted and then later posed as a prostitute to attract truck drivers carrying consumer goods and natural resources on cross-continent roads, a big market for prostitution at the time. Zulu would join these drivers on long-distance routes and then speak to them about the disease and safe sex.
During this period, there were about 39 million people in the world who were living with HIV, and about 1.2 million were infected in Zambia alone. Zulu’s parents had, in the 1980s, both died of AIDS when she was only 14, a time when preventative measures such as condom use and HIV-testing were virtually absent.
Zulu was not even aware of the deadly disease until later. “I only realized that my parents died of AIDS much later on in my life when I started reading books and magazines and watching shows on TV about AIDS,” she said in an interview with Christian Reader.
Born in 1977 in Kabwe, a city in Zambia’s Central Province, Zulu was given the first name “Princess.” Losing both her parents later in her teens, she soon took on the responsibility of providing for her siblings, and when things got tough, she married a man about twenty-five years her senior when she was 17.
In 1997, while in her 20s, she tested positive for HIV. Her husband also tested positive but their children did not. Longing to see an HIV-free generation and hopefully a day without stigma, Zulu began her campaign to combat HIV/AIDS in 1998, a period when many of her fellow women in Zambia were finding it difficult to get access to education and decent jobs.
With Zambia not having an enabling environment for them to succeed, many of them resorted to prostitution to grab the attention of truck drivers, many of whom were comfortable with having many sexual partners on one route. That was how Zulu also started posing as a sex worker to attract these drivers and drum home her message.
“I would leave my marital home against my husband’s knowledge, and I will duck in the bush and change into all kinds of seductive clothes you may call them so that the truck drivers will be attracted,” she told the BBC.
Once in their trucks, she would chat with them before revealing that though she looked healthy, she was HIV-positive. She would then encourage them to use condoms to protect themselves and their family against the virus.
The drivers were often taken aback, Zulu told the BBC, but she was optimistic that many of them turned over a new leaf.
Zulu carried on with her campaign, becoming a spokesperson for Hope Initiative, an AIDS-prevention project run by World Vision. She also met with world leaders, including U.S. President George W. Bush in 2003, calling for more funds and resources to combat the spread of AIDS. She was then selected as a delegate on a 2005 “Women and AIDS U.S. Tour: Empower Women, Save Lives,” tour sponsored by the United Nations.
But determined to make the most impact in her home country, Zulu decided to run for parliament for the constituency of Keembe, as a member of the opposition United Party for National Development. Becoming the first publicly known HIV-positive MP, Zulu has been reminding not only her fellow lawmakers but her constituents and others about the importance of testing for the virus.
“She has inspired a lot of people including myself in the sense that if a person is HIV-positive and has come out openly, that’s a good thing because people are dying because of stigma,” said Godfrey Monga, who is headteacher of a school Zulu helped construct in her constituency.
“When people were voting for her, being HIV-positive was not an issue. Her courage shows that even if one is positive, they can be productive in society.”
Despite numerous efforts to control the spread of HIV/AIDS, it remains a major public health concern and the main cause of death in many parts of Africa. Out of the 34 million HIV-positive people worldwide, 69% live in sub-Saharan Africa while there are roughly 23.8 million infected persons in all of Africa.
Some advances have been made in terms of understanding HIV and its prevention and treatment yet there are still scores of people living with the disease who do not have access to prevention, care, and treatment.
Despite the challenges, some people are slowly winning the war on HIV/AIDS and Zulu is one of them.