Bongane Nyathi ‘touches these amazing people who survived slavery’

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VOICES from… Oakland, Calif.

“There is a disease out there that is going to kill the homosexuals,” was what my biology teacher had said. Because no one in that class knew that I was living a closeted homosexual lifestyle, I hoped that my face did not reveal my horror. I was scared as hell. I thought to myself, “So this is what I am going to die of.”

Although her words continued to ring in my head, there was no way I could accept them as the truth. I was, after all, a victim of apartheid, and if that hadn’t killed me then there was no way I was going to allow some mysterious virus to do so. I made a vow to myself to acquire and share as much knowledge about AIDS as I possibly could. Today, 17 years later, my mission has not changed.

I became the first professionally-trained Black youth counselor, tester, and outreach worker in my hometown of Johannesburg, South Africa. I organized the very first HIV/AIDS Awareness Day there, with more than 5,000 people in attendance.

I came to America to further my education and to be closer to a people that the people of my hometown admire greatly, Black Americans. I wanted to meet and touch these amazing people who had survived slavery in a foreign land. Through my work in this field, I have been able to work closely with them to put an end to this horrific epidemic that is running rampant in both of our communities.

As director of education and prevention at AIDS Project East Bay in Oakland, I am challenged to bridge the gap between a community that has been rejected, neglected and pushed aside, with an Administration that wants to enforce un-scientific-based interventions upon them. They never come into the community to ask us what we need, yet they look at us when their strategies don’t yield results.

My work is not easy, but I love it. Day to day, I am inspired to keep moving ahead by all of the faces of AIDS that continuously roam the streets of the ghettos, from Africa to the United States to the Caribbean. I am motivated by the spirits of my father and two sisters, who I lost to the epidemic in South Africa. With plenty of faith and determination, I press forward — until there is a cure.

As told to Keith Green.

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