It's not easy being a beauty queen. Neo Chitombo, 29, has spent the day before her second-ever pageant honing a dance routine with other contestants, talking to pesky reporters, trying on her evening dress and shoes, and worrying about what jewelry will best accessorize the outfit. And now, just over 24 hours before she is to appear on stage, she and her fellow contestants learn that the promised rehearsal room is not available. Worse still, the pageant organizer admits that the official hair stylist may not be able to fit everyone in. Chitombo rolls her eyes and makes a snap decision: she'll travel 25 km to her home village and collect $40 from her mom to pay for a killer coiffure. Such travails might put off more pampered competitors, but Chitombo is just happy to be here. For the past three years she has been living with the virus that causes aids.
The Miss hiv Stigma Free pageant, held last weekend in the Botswanan capital, Gaborone, is a beauty show with a difference. All 12 competitors are infected and determined to prove that living with HIV doesn't slow them down or make them any different. "We are all human beings," says show founder and organizer Kesego Basha-Mupeli, herself hiv positive. "What we want to prove is that we are exactly the same as everyone else. We can live productive, positive and happy lives. Here we are. Accept us."
This combination of sequins and unadorned honesty, startling anywhere
in the world, is especially unusual in Africa. While many African countries are in denial over spiraling rates of HIV, Botswana is trailblazing a progressive approach that points to possible solutions, not just for its citizens but
for the continent. The government admits its problem and is making inroads against the disease with help from outside. Although more than one in three Botswanan adults has the aids virus, more than 35,000 (including nine of the 12 contestants) now take antiretroviral drugs (ARVS), meaning they should live relatively normal and long lives. "For many people it has become a manageable chronic condition," says Brad Ryder, communications manager at the African Comprehensive HIV/AIDS Partnership, a drug therapy program funded by U.S. drugs titan Merck
and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
But there's still a long way to go. The stigma of aids remains almost as prevalent as the disease, hampering efforts to contain its spread and adding to the burden
of those infected. The contestants in the pageant all work with welfare groups: helping those who have contracted HIV; educating those who have not. Says contestant Malebogo Mongwaketse, 26: "People still have that fear. We're trying to show that knowing your status is a good thing."
Kgalalelo Ntsepe, the outgoing Miss HIV Stigma Free, knows all about fear. Four years ago, tired and thinning, with recurring skin rashes and sweaty spells at night, Ntsepe decided to go for an HIV test. "I went two times, and only made it on the third attempt," she says. "I wasn't sure what I had but I was scared." Within weeks of being diagnosed, she started taking antiretroviral drugs and began to get better. In her role as Miss HIV Stigma Free, Ntsepe has lectured in schools and companies around Botswana and visited Kenya, Uganda and Thailand to talk about aids. "Now people are starting to see that there is life once you start taking arvs," says Ntsepe, a few hours before she hands over her crown.
During the pageant, the feisty Chitombo, sporting a sharply cut and crimped hairdo, wows the audience, but in the end the lithe and vibrant Cynthia Leshomo, 32, takes the crown. Not to worry. "I'd rather not win," says Chitombo, who fell short in 2003 as well. "As long as I don't win I can enter again and I get a week of having my hair done and trying on new dresses. It's a lot of fun." What does it feel like to be a beauty queen for a day? Chitombo smiles: "I feel like a beauty queen every day of my life."