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Zimbabwe's HIV miracle worker
The Sunday Times - World
April 10, 2005

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2089-1562306,00.html

SHE does not like the description but Lynde Francis, who was privately educated in Britain, is a walking miracle.

Nineteen years ago she was diagnosed with HIV and given three years to live. Then three years ago she was bitten by a baby cobra. She spent eight weeks in a coma, during which her vital organs stopped functioning. Her daughter was asked for approval to switch off the life-support machine.

Yet Francis, 57, survived to become an inspiration for thousands of fellow HIV carriers in Zimbabwe, which has one of the world’s highest rates of Aids but one of the lowest levels of international assistance.

The first woman in Zimbabwe to go public with her HIV-positive status, she was shunned by family and friends and attacked by the church. She pulled herself back from the verge of suicide, determined to show it was possible to live with Aids, and set up an organisation called the Centre.

It is based in a sprawling house in Harare where all the staff are HIV-positive. A combination of nutrition, traditional herbs and positive thinking has achieved remarkable survival rates in a country where more than 3,000 people die each week from Aids-related diseases.

A quarter of Zimbabwe’s 12.6m population is infected with the virus that causes Aids, and life expectancy has fallen to 33. But average funding per victim is just £2.12 a year, compared with £41.38 in the rest of southern Africa, because donors are reluctant to give to a country ruled by a despot.

The success of President Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF party in last month’s parliamentary elections, which were widely thought to have been rigged, has left the outlook bleak for Zimbabwe’s millions of Aids sufferers. Although Mugabe is expected to step down in 2008, no end is in sight to the severe food shortage caused by his land reform programme, which destroyed commercial farming. Widespread malnutrition has reduced people’s ability to fight disease.

The economic collapse, combined with the diversion of state resources to agencies of repression such as the secret police, has left hospitals that used to be among the best in Africa unable to afford medicines. For many HIV carriers, projects such as the Centre are the only hope.

Among those waiting in the shade of avocado trees to see counsellors at the Centre last week were a polite young couple in their early thirties. Dressed in their best clothes, they were still in shock from being diagnosed last month.

"It was terrible," said Bernard, a caddy at the Royal Harare golf club, as his wife Anna sat with her hands in her lap and eyes downcast.

"The doctor told us there’s nothing you can do. The state doesn’t provide (anti-retroviral drugs) and we can’t afford them. But we have two children of 13 and 8 and we want to live long enough to help them finish their schooling."

Francis, he added, had "shown us it is possible to live".

Francis, whose sing-song accent is an indicator of her British mother and Trinidadian father, grew up in London and was educated at — and expelled from — a succession of girls’ schools, including Bedales. She moved to what was then Rhodesia in 1970 to marry a musician. In 1986 he underwent one of the country’s first Aids tests. The result was positive.

When Francis was told that she also had Aids, she refused to believe it. "I can’t have. I’m fit and fat!" she replied. She flew to Britain for another test but the result was the same. Aids was still widely thought of as something that mainly hit homosexuals and drug users.

"I started with denial, then anger, then depression," said Francis, who is a mother of two and also has six foster children. She made a will and ended up in hospital with depression.

Then her partner in their construction business came to visit. Instead of being shocked when she blurted out the truth, he replied: "It’s just a virus, let’s deal with it." He returned with three books on macrobiotic foods that she says changed her life.

When her husband committed suicide in 1991 Francis spoke out, much to his family’s fury. An advertisement in a national newspaper telling HIV/Aids sufferers "there is hope" led to the first support group in her living room. It grew into a national network.

By 1994 she was unable to cope with the numbers. She handed over her business to her son and used her savings and a grant to open the Centre to foster long-term survival skills.

Patients are recommended a diet focusing on local produce such as sweet potatoes, lentils and sadza (maize) porridge, avoiding processed foods. "The number one rule is: did your granny eat this? If she didn’t, you shouldn’t," said Francis.

At the Centre people are taught to grow herbs and use traditional remedies that have been lost over the years. Herbs grown include St John’s wort, basil, parsley, pennyroyal and chives to boost the immune system and relieve symptoms such as headaches and rashes.

The Centre also helps clients obtain anti-retroviral drugs cheaply, though Francis herself does not take them, preferring to focus on diet. "We know nutrition works because we have been doing this since 1991 and had 5,000 registered clients, of which we have lost less than 15%," she said. "That is far below the national average."

According to Francis, Zimbabwe has grown out of denial. "The very magnitude of the problem has changed things," she said. "There isn’t a family, a street, a workplace which hasn’t been affected."

But she warned that this has not led to behavioural change. "People don’t see any benefit in getting tested because there is no access to care and support. And they have no hope for the future of this country, so all they want is instant gratification, which means sex and beer.

"As for the women, they think it’s better to die in 10 years’ time of Aids by selling themselves for sex than now of starvation. It’s almost as though the population had a death wish."

Zimbabwe’s high proportion of Aids sufferers is seen by some as explaining a lack of will to protest about successive rigged elections. "You have to remember this is a sick population," said one diplomat.

The youngest patient at the Centre is four months old: no country on earth has seen such an increase in child deaths over the past five years. According to Unicef, the child mortality rate has risen from one in 12 by the age of five in the 1990s to one in eight. Zimbabwe also has 1m children — one in five — orphaned by Aids. Yet major Aids donors have largely shunned the country.

Last week Carol Bellamy, executive director of Unicef, appealed for this to change. "Look for other ways to make a political point," she said, "but don’t take it out on Zimbabwe’s children — they are the ones who are suffering."

The reluctance to give aid to Zimbabwe has hit Francis, who has seen several donors pull out and now relies on small amounts from Danish, German, French and Canadian agencies.

The Centre has also been hit by Mugabe’s decision to ban foreign food aid, ending supplies that used to come from the World Food Programme and Britain’s Department for International Development.

"Far more people are dying who don’t need to die and children becoming infected who didn’t need to," said Francis. "For example, there is no formula milk available for mothers, so the virus is being passed on through breast milk."

Apart from running the Centre Francis holds workshops around the country. It was during one of these at Lake Kariba that she returned to her hotel for a nap and awoke to see a smudge on her leg that she thought was a spider bite. She carried on with the workshop despite increasing pain and the last thing she remembers is collapsing at her gate in Harare.

By the time she arrived at hospital she was in a coma. She had been bitten by a Mozambican cobra. Her leg was rotting, her kidneys and lungs had failed and she suffered a stroke.

After six weeks doctors told her daughter she was brain dead. She persuaded them to keep her on life-support and a few days later Francis awoke to find she could not move. It was six months before she could walk and speak again.

"Now they want to write me up as a miracle patient who survived despite Aids," she said. "I say no, I survived because of Aids. If I hadn’t already been living positively for 17 years, I wouldn’t have survived."

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