25 July 2012
“I play before capacity crowds and get an awful sense of fulfillment from that. But the emotion cannot compare to listening to Florence this morning.”
So said Sir Elton John after listening to Florence Ngobeni-Allen, an HIV-positive mother from Soweto, Johannesburg, speak during a Congressional Global Aids breakfast meeting he hosted on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on Tuesday.
Call for US Congress to keep funding war on Aids
During the breakfast, hosted in partnership with UNAids, Sir Elton urged senior members of Congress to keep US dollars flowing to the global effort to combat and eventually end the HIV/Aids pandemic.
The breakfast was one many events taking place alongside the 19th International Aids Conference.
Ngobeni-Allen shared the stage in the Kennedy Caucus Room with Sir Elton, South African Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, and US senators, congressmen and congresswomen.
Among the guests present were the former presidents of Botswana and Mozambique, Quett Masire and Joachim Chissano.
The reality of living with HIV
When it came to her turn to address the gathering, Ngobeni-Allen told her personal story of HIV.
“I discovered that I was HIV-positive after the birth of my first child, Nomthunzi, who died when she was only five months old,” Ngobeni-Allen said. “At that time, HIV treatment was non-existent for children in South Africa, and barely even available for adults.”
She was devastated by the loss of her baby. A little while later, she lost her partner too. She had to make a decision whether she was going to fight or give up. She decided to fight.
Her fight-back involved disclosing her HIV status – something that was not easy given the stigma then associated with HIV/Aids – and counselling pregnant women living with HIV. She became an activist as well as a counsellor, speaking out on issues related to HIV/Aids, especially access to treatment.
‘Thank you to the American people’
Ngobeni-Allen was full of praises for the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar), initiated by former US president George Bush, and the American leadership in general, which had made antiretroviral treatment and programmes to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV more widely available across the world.
“I am alive today because of Pepfar,” Ngobeni-Allen said. “Thank you to the American people for their generosity.”
She also thanked Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and the government for taking unambiguous steps to address the pandemic in South Africa, and for enhancing coordination in the fight against HIV/Aids in the country.
Today, Ngobeni-Allen is married with two children, both of whom are HIV-negative. She is a strong advocate of providing antiretroviral therapy to pregnant women living with HIV to prevent the transmission of HIV to infants.
With tears – of joy, she said – streaming down her cheeks, and an audience captivated by her courage and eloquence, Ngobeni-Allen went back to her seat – but not without a sustained applause and a standing ovation.
‘Finish this job’ – Sir Elton John
Sir Elton, in his address to the gathering, urged members of Congress to keep US dollars flowing to the global effort to combat HIV/Aids.
“I beg the Senate to maintain its funding,” Sir Elton said. “You are the country that everyone looks to. Do not take your foot off the accelerator, finish this job.”
There was a light moment when Sir Elton departed from his prepared speech and remarked: “The feeling in this room today … is like the great feeling of the sixties. It’s so apparent there is such love in this room. There is no marijuana! Well I hope not, but if so, pass it around.
“But no, there’s no need for anything like that. What we have here is the human spirit … the power of people working together for good is an unstoppable force.”
Sir Elton told the people who control the purse strings of the US: “What America does for its people makes it strong. What you do for others makes you great.”
SANews.gov.za, with additional reporting by SAinfo