I'm proud to say I spent some of the best years of my life being someone else. For ten years, I played Nandipha Sithole, an HIV-positive character on Isindingo, one of South Africa's most loved television dramas.
It wasn't always so easy to be Nandipha, though. In 2003, two years after I began acting on Isindingo, the show's creators came to me with an idea. The head writers and producers wanted to tell an uplifting story about someone with HIV that would also be educational and inspirational. They asked me if I would be willing to take on the role.
Admittedly, I was initially filled with fear and anxiety. At that time, the misunderstanding around HIV and AIDS in South Africa was still very high, and there was a silence about the disease, borne of a sense of shame that the nation had yet to overcome. I was afraid of how I would be perceived, then and for the rest of my career. However, after deep discussions with my father, a devoted advocate of HIV/AIDS education, I agreed to take on the challenge.
Before long, Nandipha's character became iconic! Her story was traumatic, but also hopeful: raped and infected with HIV by her abusive husband, Nandipha ran away to a new life, eventually becoming an HIV activist and a role model to others.
Moreover, Nandipha was the first on-screen character on South African television to be openly HIV-positive, and she helped demystify and destigmatize the realities of living with HIV. She helped break down social and educational barriers, a step that was long overdue.
Through Nandipha, I become an educator, an agony aunt, a sister, a nurse, and, to many, an example for how to live a full and healthy life with HIV. Playing these roles for so many years awakened in me a love of helping others and opened my heart to those in need.
Food and nutrition bring back hope
I have been immensely fortunate to act as a National Ambassador Against Hunger for the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), the world's largest hunger-fighting humanitarian agency. As an Ambassador, I tell people about WFP's life-saving support to people affected by the crippling cycle of HIV, poverty, and hunger.
Last year, I travelled with WFP to Swaziland, where 26 percent of the workforce is HIV-positive -- the highest in the world. Fortunately, WFP's food and nutrition activities are helping people living with and affected by HIV to regain their health.
Perhaps the most touching thing I saw on my trip was the support that WFP provided to orphans and other vulnerable children touched by HIV. These children receive at least two nutritious meals a day at neighborhood care points, which help them grow up healthy and strong. Seeing these kids well-nourished and smiling helped me understand that the fight against hunger really is winnable, particularly for people with HIV.
An HIV-free Africa
Raising awareness about HIV and AIDS is my life's work. As I continue learning about this pandemic, I am passionate about delivering a positive message to those affected by HIV and AIDS. This disease doesn't have to be a death sentence anymore, and stigma and discrimination is no longer acceptable. With consistent treatment, healthy diets and the aid of strong support systems, people living with HIV and AIDS can increasingly lead long, productive and fulfilling lives.
My greatest hope is that my children and my children's children will live to see an HIV-free generation in Africa. I am so heartened by the progress we have already made in combatting this epidemic. I know we can do even more.