Lynde Francis did not have time for self-pity. Diagnosed HIV-positive in 1986, she learned to live with HIV, instead of dying of AIDS, and taught other Zimbabweans how to do it, long before antiretrovirals (ARVs), when HIV was a death sentence and AIDS was shrouded in blame, shame, and self-hate.
Lynde was a maverick: Zimbabwe’s first woman builder, a music promoter, zesty and fun. Her disclosure of being HIV-positive in the media in 1992—the first white Zimbabwean to do so—changed the face of AIDS.
So did her philosophy of Long Term Survival Skills: eat well, be well, and live longer. Take control and manage the virus. Avoid victimhood. She taught these Skills at The Centre, which she set up in Harare in the mid-1990s, and across Africa.
Her original thinking spawned an international career. With time, she widened her questioning to look at how AIDS, “the great revealer,” forces society and people to confront inequalities (from class to gender), reshape relations (between spouses, parents and children), and redefine public health.
Empowering people through knowledge was her strategy, with ARVs as the last resort. Less than one-third of Africans who need ARVs are in treatment. For many, living positively is the first and only line of defense against AIDS. For those in treatment, it is equally sound advice.
Monitoring her health through good nutrition, positive thinking, and alternative healing therapies, Lynde only took ARVs briefly in 2002 after a poisonous spider bite put her in a coma for six weeks. Doctors predicted death or brain damage, but Lynde regained her health, her feistiness, and her pleasure in wearing colorful caftans and ethnic jewelry.
In March, she celebrated 23 years with the virus, but was battling since December a brain tumor, a perforated ulcer, and meningitis. Lynde Francis died on March 31, aged 62.
She is survived by two biological and four foster children, six grandchildren, and thousands of people living with HIV who learned her survival skills.
Ondine Francis, her daughter, asked friends to remember Lynde on Monday April 6, at 3 pm. On that balmy autumn afternoon, in my garden in Pretoria, I sipped roiboos tea and played Thomas Mapfumo. In the African funeral tradition, I faced the sun, spilled wine on the ground for the ancestors, and celebrated the life of this extraordinary woman.
Mercedes Sayagues is an Uruguayan-born journalist, who specializes on AIDS, gender, sexuality, health, humanitarian issues and human rights.