She introduced herself to the world with something she called her HIV prayer. "Hello, HIV, you trespasser," Thembi would say. "You are in my body. You have to obey the rules. You have to respect me, and if you don't hurt me, I won't hurt you. You mind your business, I'll mind mine."
Thembi, who died June 5 at the age of 24, lived in Khayelitsha, one of the largest shantytowns in South Africa. In a country with one of the highest AIDS rates in the world, the fact that Thembi was HIV positive made her a statistic. What made her special is that she spoke out.
I met Thembi in 2004, when she was 19. I gave her a tape recorder to document her life and her struggle with AIDS. Over the course of a year, Thembi recorded many of her most intimate moments: interviews with her family and friends, late-night dancing with her boyfriend, the sounds of her baby Onwabo and the moment when she told her father she had AIDS.
"Thembi's AIDS Diary" was first broadcast on National Public Radio in 2006. Over the next few years, more than 50 million people in a dozen countries heard her story. "Maybe people need someone they can relate to--someone who is just like them--to spell it out to them," she said. "I felt like I owed it to everyone to just be heard." In South Africa, she became a role model for young people living with HIV. But all that recognition still couldn't protect her.
Thembi thought about death almost every day. Yet she was the most alive person I've ever met. She sometimes asked me why I chose to do an audio diary about her life. But I feel like she chose me.
Richman is the founder of Radio Diaries, which airs on NPR's All Things Considered