Princess Kasune Zulu stands at the side of Zambia’s Great North Road with her arm extended and thumb pointed expectantly upwards. She beams as a juggernaut pulls over to offer a lift. The driver thinks this is his lucky day as the voluptuous 28-year-old with a beautiful smile jumps into his cab. Prostitutes ply their trade to truckers along this vast highway which links a handful of countries across sub-Saharan Africa. Other women will sometimes strike a deal with a driver, offering sex in exchange for a free ride.
Sex is the reason that Princess Zulu – Princess is her Christian name, not her title – has got into the truck. But she doesn’t want to do it – she wants to talk about it. They chat for a few minutes and then the driver gives her the opening she has been waiting for: “So what do you do?”
Expecting a sad story about how she got involved in prostitution, he hears the news that she is here not to seduce him for cash, but to educate him about HIV. “When I tell drivers that I am HIV positive, they don’t believe me because I look so well,” she says when we meet at the offices of the development and relief charity World Vision in Lusaka. “And they are amazed that I am so open about my status. Most people keep their HIV a secret and if they are sick they pretend it’s anything but Aids. On several occasions the truck drivers have been so shocked that they’ve almost crashed.”
Research has found that both sex workers and truckers say they decide whether the other has the virus on the rather unscientific basis of appearance. Anyone who looks weak and wasted, has a hacking cough and a crop of skin rashes, sets alarm bells ringing. A woman like Princess Zulu does not. She has made it her mission to spread accurate information about the virus, using her own status to personalize the message. She targets truck drivers because they are transporting the virus across the continent, having unprotected sex with up to 60 women on long journeys across three or four countries. Then they return home to their wives.
The need to educate people about HIV has never been more urgent. According to UNAids, 2.4 million Africans died of Aids in 2002. More than 20% of the population in seven African countries has HIV. In spite of recent reports that Aids figures are lower than at first predicted, the death toll is still rising at an alarming rate. When she is not cajoling truckers into abstaining from casual sex or persuading them to use condoms, she lobbies for World Vision, meeting global leaders, including President Bush, and putting pressure on them to back up their rhetoric about the Aids crisis in sub-Saharan Africa with cash. She lobbied Bush to commit serious money to fighting Aids worldwide – the US has now pledged $3bn a year for five years.
Now she hopes to do the same with the British government. On Monday, she will share a platform with Hillary Benn, the secretary of state for development, at the House of Commons, at an Aids conference. She hopes to meet Tony Blair, and wants the government to provide funds to support an estimated 14 million Aids orphans.
Princess Zulu is herself an Aids orphan. She was born into a wealthy family in the Lenje tribe and her father worked as an officer commanding the Zambian railway police. When she was 14, her mother became ill with a condition that no one could identify. “She called me into her bedroom in the middle of the night and said: ‘I’m dying. I want you to be strong and have good courage.'”
Almost immediately after her mother’s death her father became ill and was unable to work. She regularly took her father to the nearest clinic, 5 miles away. “I carried him on my back because he was too sick to walk. He was taller than me and his feet dangled on to the ground,” she says.
After two months she could no longer carry him. Her father decided to return to the village he had grown up in to end his life but never made it. He died en route in the bush and wasn’t found until five days later. Princess Zulu was so overwhelmed with grief that she couldn’t attend his funeral. “Nobody knew about Aids then and everyone told me my parents had died as a result of witchcraft,” she says. “It’s only now the symptoms of Aids are known, that I understand the truth. My baby sister died of Aids at the age of two and my brother died of Aids in 2002 when he was 32.”
She dropped out school when her parents died, and married a man 23 years older, “as a means of survival”. They have two daughters, Joy, nine, and Faith, seven. Neither has HIV.
Most people in sub-Saharan Africa are not diagnosed until symptoms appear and due to poor nutrition and healthcare the disease makes rapid progress: many are dead within three months of diagnosis. Princess Zulu decided to have the test in December 1997, even though she had no symptoms. “It is unheard of to get tested for HIV here when you are well, but a voice in my head kept telling me to do it,” she says. Her husband was also tested. Both were HIV-positive. “When I found out, I thought, this is what I’ve been waiting for.” She has a strong faith, and believes that she had been infected for a reason – to educate others. “A month after my diagnosis I started dressing up and going out to hitchhike, to talk to the truck drivers. The pastor at my local church banned me from attending because I was speaking publicly about HIV, but later he allowed me to return.”
Princess Zulu is one of a tiny minority in sub-Saharan Africa who is taking anti-retroviral drugs – ARVs. They are working well; her skin glows, her eyes sparkle and she bounces rather than walks into a room. “There’s no point making generic ARVs cheaper in Africa. People still won’t be able to afford them. We need to make them free so that parents can survive long enough to see their children grow up.
“We are late in tackling the Aids epidemic, but we can stop it. Changing the lot of women is the key to turning things around. Not enough women are empowered. Not enough of them are educated about Aids and not enough of them have their own home or a job which would help them assert themselves. It’s hard for a woman to make her husband use a condom if he refuses to and if her husband dies of Aids, and she suspects he has infected her, she may well keep quiet about it because she needs to remarry in order to survive.”
Between 2000 and 2002, Princess Zulu hosted a phone-in radio program in Zambia about HIV called Positive Living. She received many calls from women but, unlike her, none were prepared to give their names over the airwaves. Fear and stigma prevail. Through all the deaths in Princess Zulu’s family, the miserable lack of resources and the prejudice against HIV-positive women, her spirit has remained steadfast. Only one thing has almost overwhelmed her. “I don’t cry for myself, nor for my children, but the first time I left Africa and travelled to the United States I cried. I couldn’t believe that this other world existed, a world where people were always throwing food in the bin, where special outfits were designed for dogs, a world capable of doing something about the Aids pandemic but which may decide not to.”