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Tendayi Westerhof: Role models need to declare their positive status
Centre for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA)
October, 2005

Tendayi Westerhof is the Founder and Director of Public Personalities Against AIDS Trust in Zimbabwe. This is her story. from: "Women leadning the response to HIV/AIDS in their communities". The story emerges from a month long workshop run by CEDPA in October 2005. 

Tendayi Westerhof, founder and Director of Public Personalities Against AIDS Trust in Zimbabwe

Tall and graceful, Tendayi Westerhof always wanted to be a model — and a policewoman and a flight attendant too, because they had vehicles and beautiful clothes. Her father, a mining company employee in their central Zimbabwe town of Kwekwe, dismissed the idea of sending her to school because that was something for boys. But Westerhof not only achieved her childhood dream of being a model, she has become an educator herself and with CEDPA’s help she’s honing her message to combat the gender inequality she has fought all her life.

Westerhof’s mother was unschooled but determined that her second child would get a good education, so Westerhof went to secretarial college. And then she became pregnant. "He was an older man who said he would marry me, and I knew nothing about family planning or condoms." She had two children. "It was the end of the world when that relationship ended," she recalled. "I thought no man would want me because I had children." She fell back on her good looks and earned a college diploma in modeling. "I did fashion shows and contests and regained my confidence," she said. As a private secretary, she could at least afford to take care of her children. And when she met and fell in love with the Dutch athlete who was coach of the Zimbabwe national soccer team, their marriage was a national media event, celebrated as a biracial milestone.

"Because he was a personality, I automatically was one too," Westerhof said. She stopped working and stayed home except for publicity events. "We made a beautiful family, but it was short lived," she said. He was offered a lucrative coaching job in the United Arab Emirates and moved there, returning often to visit her and the children in Zimbabwe. In January 2002, he tested positive for HIV. He blamed her.

"I went to be tested myself, in disguise, because everyone knew my face," Westerhof related. She was HIV positive but had no idea what it meant. "I thought I as going to die at any moment." Her husband accused her of lying to him, "even though he had other girls," and one day she came home to find the house empty of furniture, the car, clothes, everything. "I was HIV positive, abandoned and pregnant —a triple stigma; and I was also exposing my husband to criticism." To the media, it was an irresistible story. "People said, ‘Because she was married to a white man, she wants to get back at him.’ The woman cannot do or say anything. But one writer made me talk about it in public for the first time."

She began to wonder at the national silence on HIV/AIDS. "I saw that if prominent people talk openly and candidly, it could be a great influence on the public." In 2003, Westerhof founded the Public Personalities Against AIDS Trust. "Role models need to declare their positive status, or if relatives have died of AIDS," she said. "They can do a lot of good." When prominent Zimbabweans began visiting her privately and calling on the phone, she learned that they also needed information themselves. "They can’t go to ordinary people’s meetings to pick these things up," she said.

Westerhof applied to CEDPA’s WomenLead workshop to become a better leader and broaden her range of skills. She was familiar with much that was presented in the communications sessions—"It’s what we do"—but fundraising strategies and management principles like delegating authority were new to her. "It’s critical to involve people living with HIV at all levels of decision making, and to put the issue of treatment up front. And to point out how gender imbalance is woven into everything."

Westerhof’s focus now is on raising public awareness and understanding. She has spoken out about HIV/AIDS in more than 100 forums in the past two years and of course on radio and television. Income from a modeling agency she started in 2003 helps support her work, as well as her group called Models Against AIDS. And she put it all into a novel, Unlucky in Love, published by her organization. "It’s fi ction to protect people, but it’s a true story," she said. "It’s caused a lot of controversy, but that’s good."

Westerhof said that in Zimbabwe, CEDPA’s materials would help her rewrite her group’s strategic plan. She will use CEDPA’s manual of best practices to focus her communications work to recruit more prominent people to speak out and to attract new donors. "We need to say it’s not just about the money—it’s about saving people’s lives."

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