Meet Thokozile (Thoko) Phiri from Malawi. Like many of our ONE volunteers, she works hard to protect AIDS programs like The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis. But unlike many ONE volunteers, she advocates globally and in her community in Malawi, where a tenth of the population is affected by HIV/AIDS – including herself.
Thoko, an ambassador for Here I Am, a campaign that urges world leaders to continue to support the Global Fund, was kind enough to sit down with me during her recent visit to Washington, D.C., (she was here to attend the annual RESULTS International Conference and speak to members of Congress about the importance of the Global Fund). During our talk, she shared her advice for ONE members on how to be a good AIDS advocate and her experience being an AIDS ambassador for Here I Am.
Anupama Dathan: What inspires you to fight so hard against these diseases?
Thoko Phiri: I lost both my parents and a younger brother to HIV and TB. After seeing my father’s battle against HIV and his eventual death, there was no way I could do nothing. My father’s journey is my motivation. It inspired me so much that every time I’m down, I look back and say, ‘OK, this is why I have to stand up and move on.’
There’s also my son’s generation. I find in him a reason to fight on. There’s a generation that’s coming, and if we don’t do something, we are going to be held responsible by the young ones.
You’ve done so much to advocate for the Global Fund in Europe, Canada and the US. Of all that you’ve done, what was the most meaningful?
The best is meeting the people who make decisions and explaining to them the impact of their aid to the Global Fund. That really changes them because they realize it’s not just about money. They see the impact on people. I’ve had people make commitments right there. They say things like, ‘When this issue comes to the table, I am going to support it.’ When I go to them and say, ‘This is what happened to my family,’ it means more than saying a number like ‘2,000 lives.’ Just seeing me standing there before them and speaking really changes them. And that’s made me be more committed.
What sorts of reactions do you usually get? Are they always positive? Do you get negative reactions?
Nothing negative in the US, but in other countries I have. People say, ‘But we have made contributions. Why should we increase aid when there are needy people here?’ When it reaches that point, I always say, for example, with TB, ‘TB anywhere is TB everywhere.’ It spreads so easily. And now we have cases of totally drug-resistant TB. I remember when we had [Swine flu] a few years ago. Every government talked about it – they probably dreamed about it! That is the kind of attention we have to give TB.
How has the faith community been involved in this work in Malawi?
In Malawi, 98 percent of citizens belong to one faith or another, and we are so religious that if a faith leader says something, we believe it. If a leader says, ‘You should stop taking your ARVs,’ people would believe them! We need to educate religious leaders to give the right information and to reach out to communities to educate them. That’s why I work with the Malawi Interfaith AIDS Association, an organization that educates, treats and mobilizes Christians and Muslims against HIV.
What words do you have for ONE members also advocating for the Global Fund?
I really love what my president [Joyce Banda] says. She says, ‘Power to the people.’ We are the ones who hold the power, not our elected officials. We need to make sure we find a way to use that power to help those people who are underprivileged.
And the other thing that I really want to say is that just a word of mouth can change someone’s life entirely. All the influence we are having globally is actually saving lives of people and I’ve actually experienced that. For the Global Fund to come to where it is now, it’s because people advocate for it. And so we should join each others hands to save the lives of those who are at risk.