Ruby’s Rap by Ruby Comer
I see this phrase posted all over Berlin: “20 Jahre Mauerfall.” The translation is, “The 20th Anniversary of the Fall of the Wall.” I’m so blessed to be here celebrating this occasion. As I jot down notes for this article, I’m watching the activities at the historic Brandenburg Gate, which I can see close hand from my hotel window. What a priceless view! Bono just finished playing and now fireworks splash across the sky.
By rooming here at the sumptuous Hotel Adlon Kempinski I have a front-row seat. Before the Wall fell, this area, Pariser Platz, was in East Berlin and it was in shambles. The hotel was opened in 1907 by Lorenz Adlon, whose great grandson is the famed director Percy Adlon, writer and director of the little screen gem Bagdad Café. Entering the hotel, one feels like they’re entering a royal palace. The classic film Grand Hotel with Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford was inspired by the property.
This place attracts the well-heeled traveler, like, well…this is where Michael Jackson dangled his son Blanket out the window. Yesterday in the grand and opulent lobby, I brushed elbows with ol’ Hil and Gorby—that’s Hillary Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev, my darlings. It’s such fun running into these high-falutin’ folk. With all these elegant people in this luxurious ambiance, I feel just like a queen—I am!
And speaking of royalty, this morning while I feast on the hotel’s bountiful breakfast buffet, I run into a wonderful gal named “Princess”! Her name is Princess Kasune [Ka-soo’-nay] Zulu, author of Warrior Princess, and she has dedicated her life to battling the global AIDS pandemic. Raised near Victoria Falls in Southern Africa, Princess lost both parents to AIDS, thrusting her into the position of caregiver to eight dependents. Then at the age of twenty-one, she was diagnosed with HIV. Her fight to end AIDS has taken her from the White House, where she urged President George W. Bush to pass PEPFAR in 2003, to hitchhiking with truck drivers in her own country dressed like a sex worker to spread the word about prevention. Princess hosted a live radio show called Positive Living. Currently, she’s an associate pastor at River City Church in Chicago and an educator for World Vision’s HIV and AIDS HOPE Initiative. She lives in Chicago with her second husband David and her two daughters, who are fourteen and sixteen. They are both HIV-free.
Ruby Comer: I’ve been reading about you in the news. [We’re seated at a table crowned with a vase of fresh yellow roses.] You will do nearly anything to get the message across. Hallelujah, Princess! What motivates you to be an activist?
Princess Kasune Zulu: For me being an activist is not something I put on and off; it’s what I live every day. The pain I went through, I don’t want anyone else to go through! I mean, after I was diagnosed in 1997, I was told that I would live for six months due to lack of treatment in Zambia at the time. I need to be an activist! Especially when we allow silence, stigma, and discrimination to thrive. This disease in many ways is preventable yet has already claimed over twenty-five million people. If I can save even just one life….
How did you get through those rough times after your parents died, Princess?
The challenges did not begin when my parents died. It began as I watched my parents waste away. My bataa [father] was reduced to bare bones. I would carry him on my back to Liteta Hospital, which was about fifteen kilometers, with his thin legs dangling around me. That memory is like yesterday.
My bama [mother] was one of the most beautiful African women, tall in stature and a voluptuous figure. During her decline she needed an antifungal cream to alleviate her pain. It was nowhere to be found. In the U.S.A. it costs less them five dollars. My cousin and I embarked on a five-hour trip to Chililabombwe. When I returned home the following day, I was greeted by loud cries. They were mourning the death of my mother. I never even had a chance to say goodbye.
Oh, how sad, Princess.
The pain cannot be put into words, Ruby. A part of me was relieved that my parents were gone because I hated to see them in pain. Yet obtaining basic daily needs like food and school fees for my siblings became a real struggle. I resorted to doing anything I could do to obtain basic needs for my siblings without knowing I was increasing my chances of becoming HIV-positive, too.
Do you have access to meds? How accessible are meds for Zambians now?
Yes I do have access and they are kindly funded for me. In the developing world, access to meds is a different story. When my parents died, medication cost around $10,000 per year, so it was simply out of reach for Zambians. Now, thanks to international advocacy and in large part to PEPFAR, around four million people globally have access to treatment. Lives are being saved every day. Every time a parent is saved, their child lives in safety and has a greater chance to go to school.
Are you satisfied with what the Obama administration is doing in the battle against AIDS?
My hope is that Obama will keep building on the success of the last administration, and that the spirit of the American people will continue to support AIDS funding and other initiatives. In this time of the U.S.’s own domestic challenges and economic meltdown it is easy to cut funds, but my hope is that this will not happen. According to Bono and the new documentary The Lazarus Effect, it costs only forty cents a day to put an individual on treatment in Africa. I think we can afford that. [She smiles.]
What can the average Jane do to help in the battle against AIDS?
First, it’s important to know that our generation has it in its power to end the suffering of extreme poverty and preventable diseases like AIDS. You will be amazed how a little in the West goes a long way in Africa and other developing parts of the world. I encourage everyone to take six simple steps: (1) Arm yourself with knowledge and share it, (2) write to your local Congressman encouraging them to honor their commitments to the developing world, (3) buy more ethical and fair trade products, (4) volunteer time to organizations working in the developing world, (5) donate whatever money is affordable, (6) get tested. [All of a sudden, a ray of sunlight streams through the huge window we’re seated by that’s next to Unter der Linden Boulevard.] I’ve heard it said that if everyone in the developed world donated two hundred dollars per year, we could eliminate extreme poverty in our lifetime.
It sounds so simple. How do you educate your children about the epidemic?
My belief is to start as young as possible. For my daughters Joy and Faith, they were five years-old when I told them my HIV status, and when they were only three, I explained HIV prevention, of course in children’s language. Since knowledge is power we must teach our children. And who better equipped to do that? Their parents.
Your kids are now teens; how do you get through to someone whose nature is to be rebellious? What do you advocate?
For rebellious youths, I am of the opinion that “tough love” is the key solution. In terms of sex education I would recommend abstinence or condom use. I know condom use is controversial among some Christians, but it’s no use expecting non-committed teens to embrace abstinence as a value. The key is to be intentional with young people, and holistic, but you also have to meet them at their level.
Ride on, girl! African women seem to live in a male dominated society. How did you escape that?
I think what carried me was my courage and determination and the ability to keep pushing even when the doors where closed. These gifts have allowed me to empower myself to challenge those practices in the African culture that tend to dominate women. For example, my speaking out against HIV/AIDS is a sign of how I have achieved that. Women in African cultures never question or speak out against any injustice. I am equally empowered by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I am now embracing my womanhood and as a result I’m teaching my two daughters to respect their bodies and sexuality and to never accept any behaviors and attitudes that deny women the ability to flourish and explore their own God-given potentials.
That was eloquently stated. Who are your heroes in the epidemic?
People like Nelson Mandela and Dr. Manasseh Phiri from Zambia, who is featured in The Lazarus Effect. Bono and Oprah have been my heroes for a long time. I admire Mrs. Clinton for her activism toward education, especially for girls, which is key in fighting HIV. If people are illiterate how can they protect themselves? And yet, it’s the ordinary students and women and men who have stood up against stigma and discrimination. The women, who, in the midst of their pain, care for others—the nurses who sometimes are not paid well, and the teachers who have to teach even when they have left a husband dying of AIDS [at home] or living with AIDS themselves.
Do you see a “light at the end of the tunnel” for the AIDS epidemic? [I gaze upon her, doe-eyed.]
Yes I see the light, given that if those living with HIV and AIDS can have access to treatment. When I see the amazing shift in a church’s response to the epidemic, the African governments’ involvement increasing, international communities fulfilling the promises they made, and great activism that has emerged among young people who call on their political representatives—there is hope. All of this is a great step toward a bright future.
Give yourself the royal treatment and log on to www.princesszulu.com.
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at MsRubyComer [at] aol.com.