By Carole Landry
Gaborone - Meet Kgalalelo Ntsepe, a soft-spoken former nanny with a flashy smile and short-cropped hair who in 2003 beat 13 other women to be crowned Miss HIV Stigma Free in Botswana.
Now only months away from ending her reign, 33-year-old Ntsepe says she has done her best to challenge misconceptions about people living with HIV and Aids, which is afflicting close to 38 percent of adults in Botswana, one of the highest rates in the world.
"I can say that I am one person who would like to see my country free of HIV and Aids one day," says Ntsepe from her modest counselling centre in Gaborone where she offers advice on testing and other issues.
"It was nice for me to win the pageant because I think I helped a lot of people. From there, I had to go around the country to teach people about knowing their status, the importance of testing and teach them how to live positively with HIV," she says.
The HIV Miss Stigma Free pageant in September 2003 allowed the contestants to show off their talents in traditional dance, demonstrate their poise and grace in evening wear and speak from the heart about HIV and Aids.
It showed that "even if you are HIV positive, you can do things like others", says Ntsepe, who found out she carried the virus that causes Aids in 2001 after a serious bout of ill health and soon after she began taking anti-retroviral drugs (ARV) offered free in Botswana.
As "queen", Ntsepe says she has been confronted with accusations that she is a fake, part of the ignorance and denial that still permeate the Aids issue in Botswana, nearly two decades after the first case was diagnosed here in 1985.
"People say I'm lying because I am looking fit. They say I'm just out to eat the government's money," she says.
Botswana's rates of Aids infection have remained at high levels for the past decade, despite a trail-blazing approach by the government of President Festus Mogae who has said that his country of 1,7 million faces the threat of "extinction" from Aids.
Mogae's governing party is expected to be re-elected in nationwide polls on Saturday on a platform that calls for intensifying the fight against the pandemic that has left 120 000 orphans and brought life expectancy down from 69 to 56 in this southern African country.
Part of that stepped-up approach went into swing in January when the government announced that all patients exhibiting Aids symptoms would be tested for HIV on admittance to hospital unless they specifically stated their refusal.
The routine testing marks a departure from the previous policy of maintaining confidentiality and of relying on voluntary testing to bring down the infection rate.
In 2002, Botswana became the first country in Africa to offer free life-prolonging anti-retroviral drugs. A little more than 21 000 people are now enrolled in the 23 sites of the "Masa" ARV programme - which means New Dawn in the Setswana language - and nine more clinics are due to open soon.
Botswana's fight against Aids is closely watched as success here could help efforts under way elsewhere in southern Africa - in Swaziland, now the world's worst affected country, according to the United Nations Aids agency, and South Africa, which has the largest number of citizens living with the disease.
Aids activists say the government is realising that drugs and testing centres do not provide all of the answers.
"We panicked and we acted very fast," says Helen Ditsebe-Mhone, among the first handful of people in Botswana to disclose they were HIV positive.
Ditsebe-Mhone contends that attitudes are not changing quickly enough and that men are reluctant to go for testing or take ARVs, leaving women to carry most of the burden of leading the fight against Aids.
"The message is not penetrating - there is no breakthrough. The infection rate is not going down," she says. - Sapa-AFP