GABORONE, Botswana -- Five years ago, when Cynthia Leshomo
discovered she was HIV-positive, she swallowed a bottle of the
anti-retroviral pills prescribed for her and slipped into a coma
for two days.
"I thought I was cursed, a black sheep in the family," said the
young business school graduate, who had an AIDS-related tumor in
her stomach and whose weight had slipped to a skeletal 75 pounds.
"I thought, 'Why me?' I couldn't face the stigma."
On Saturday night, however, a now happy and beautiful Leshomo
showed off just how far she--and Botswana--have come in combating
that same stigma, sashaying away with a bouquet of flowers, a
scholarship and a prestigious new title: Miss HIV Stigma Free.
"I'm here to empower people," said the beaming 32-year-old in an
orange-and-white evening gown, as she accepted a crown of flowers
and kisses from admirers at Gaborone's convention center, home to
the world's first beauty pageant for HIV-positive women.
More than a third of adults in Botswana carry the virus that
causes AIDS, and in the last several years the southern African
nation of 1.7 million has become the continent's leader in
providing free anti-retroviral drugs.
But battling the stigma surrounding AIDS is another matter in
Botswana, as in most of Africa. Despite the widespread
availability of testing and treatment, many Batswana--as
Botswana's citizens are known--avoid AIDS tests or hide their
positive status. Across the largely rural country, families still
whisper about the neighbor who has lost too much weight or
theystop calling friends who go to the local clinic a little too
"People look at this as something that has to do with one's moral
behavior, so stigma is a major concern," said Dr. Patson Mazonde,
director of health services for Botswana's Ministry of Health.
Ending discrimination and encouraging HIV-positive people to go
public with their status, he and others say, is vital to curbing
the spread of the epidemic.
That's where Miss HIV Stigma Free comes in. In a nation where
young women are disproportionately affected by the virus, the
pageant is a way of showing that the HIV-positive need not be
ashamed and that with treatment they can look good and live well.
"This has helped take the lid off the silence," said Dr. Ernest
Darkoh, who oversaw the launch of the government anti-retroviral
treatment program in 2001. "The truth is a person on treatment
can run in the Olympics, can do anything. They are as beautiful
and able and deserving as anybody else."
The pageant, organized by HIV counseling organizations, doesn't
quite have the cache--or the cash--of bigger beauty pageants. The
dozen contestants last week practiced their runway moves in an
empty house in Gaborone's dusty suburbs and scrounged for money
to buy shoes at the local mall. There was no dress rehearsal
because the dresses arrived at the last minute.
Not just a pretty pageant
But the women, coached on snappy turns and smiling poses by the
current Miss Botswana, still managed to strut under the lights
looking terrific and not at all terrified as an audience of about
400 whooped and applauded, and photographers blinded them with
Unlike many beauty pageants, "this one's very meaningful," said
Juby Peacock, Miss Botswana, as she helped the contestants--most
in their 30s, many with children and a few extra pounds--with
their dresses. "It's a very good thing."
The Miss HIV pageant, first held in 2002, initially got off to a
rough start. Its first winner, chosen mainly for her good looks,
was stunned by the widespread media attention, panicked and soon
threatened the local media with defamation lawsuits if they
revealed she was HIV-positive. The next year, pageant organizers
made leadership, maturity, communication skills and knowledge
about HIV the top judging criteria.
The next winner, Kgalalelo Ntsepe, a maid turned HIV counselor
with less-than-perfect teeth but a heartfelt speaking style, went
on to crisscross the country, talking to school groups and at
public gatherings and urging HIV testing and anti-retroviral
treatment, which she credits with saving her life.
"If you keep silent, fingers don't stop pointing at you," she
told listeners. When one student suggested all those carrying the
AIDS virus be killed to stem the epidemic, she reminded him that
when Botswana tries to control cattle disease outbreaks, it culls
infected cattle and those not yet tested, just to be safe. The
student quickly backed down.
This year's contestants, in their pageant speeches, promised they
would work to encourage more people--particularly prominent
Batswana--to be tested and publicly reveal their status, and
would focus on ensuring the disease isn't passed to the next
"We are going to kill it, rather than it killing us," promised
Elizabeth Remolale, 33, one of the contestants, who was once 42
pounds and bedridden. "We are going to fight until AIDS is
Small contestant pool
The competitors, who paraded in evening dresses, casual wear and
traditional clothing, were--as in past years--nearly all employed
as HIV counselors, at least since discovering their status. The
contest has yet to attract many ordinary clerks or lawyers or
housewives, one sign of the continuing stigma surrounding the
But the pageant is gaining public support. Donors this year
included big Botswana diamond mining businesses such as DeBeers,
as well as cell phone companies, banks, airlines and even
Holiness Union Church.
Leshomo, the winner, wowed the crowd with an enthusiastic smile,
a traditional costume that included a bottle of anti-retroviral
pills tucked in a clay pot and an eloquent promise to battle
"Let us fight HIV and AIDS, let us fight stigma. Let us not fight
the people with the virus," she urged.
In many ways, she has already won her own battle with the virus
and the stigma surrounding it. Last year, at an AIDS conference
in Bangkok, she met a fellow HIV-positive activist who has become
her boyfriend. She is back at work, as an administrator for a
government medical plan and hopes to begin a master's degree in
public speaking soon. Her immune system, once nearly destroyed,
has recovered with the help of anti-retroviral drugs.
Five years ago, "I was dead," she said. Now, "I've got my life