How We Met: Anna Chancellor & Thabitha Khumalo

'At home I am an enemy of the state, here Anna is a shoulder to lean on'
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The Independent Online

Thabitha Khumalo is the vice president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and this year won UK Woman of the Year. Khumalo, 46, has just launched the campaign Dignity.Period! with Action for South Africa (ACTSA). She lives in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

The moment I saw Anna's face I recognised her from the movies. My stomach was churning, but as soon as she sat down she was warm and friendly.

Our first meeting was at a coffee shop in London. ACTSA had contacted Anna in order to help raise awareness of some of the health issues affecting women in Zimbabwe. We sat down together and I explained to her that the average minimum wage for a woman in my country is £12 per month, and yet a box of 10 tampons costs £3. What woman in her right mind would rather spend money on tampons rather than on basics like food? The female life expectancy is now 34 years: and they are dying from preventable infections. Anna was horrified.

Anna told me that when she was in Zimbabwe she got very sick, and the couple she was staying with looked after her until she got better. They became good friends, so I think she felt she wanted to give something back. It so happened that I also knew the farm where she had stayed, and when I told her that it had been repossessed and all the people displaced, it broke her heart. She started crying and I did too.

From that moment our friendship blossomed. Every time I came to the UK I would call her and we would go to the theatre, or just chat over the phone. Eventually we managed to organise a fundraising event with her friends from the film industry. It was beyond words. The lights, the decorations, the most beautiful women in the most beautiful gowns - it was a different world for me. I was mesmerised.

Although our lives are very different, Anna and I have a very strong connection. We are both go-getters with a lot of determination and energy. Like me, she is also a single mother, which can be a huge challenge. So even though we come from different environments, we are sort of in the same boat.

When I compare our two worlds, it amazes me that they can co-exist and I think that is why our friendship is so important. I come from a place where I have no rights, or freedom of speech. It's survival of the fittest. I have to learn from what I have seen of Anna's world so that we can work towards a better Zimbabwe.

In the UK I feel like a human being again, whereas at home in Zimbabwe I can feel isolated. At home it's difficult for me to have friends because I am an enemy of the state and people are petrified to be seen to be talking to me. Here, you have no time to cry because you have always got to be strong, but when I come to the UK I know that in Anna I will always have a shoulder to lean on.

Anna Chancellor is widely recognised for her role as Duckface in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), and on television as Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice. More recently Chancellor, 41, has made appearances in Spooks. She lives in London and has a daughter called Poppy.

Thabitha is a bit like a film star: she's very beautiful and incredibly strong and incredibly vulnerable, all at once. Her openness is characteristic of the people in Zimbabwe, which is probably why I felt very at home there and very at home with Thabitha.

I met Thabitha after receiving an email that said something like, "Women in trouble in Zimbabwe - no sanitary products". I thought that was horrendous - the idea of never being able to have a tampon when you need one. But the real reason I felt a necessity to help was that I became incredibly sick while I was working in Zimbabwe and a local woman took me to her home, fed, bathed me and looked after me until I got better. I loved her so much. In a way my friendship with Thabitha is a repayment to her. Weirdly, when I told Thabitha this, we worked out that this woman was actually her cousin's wife.

The day we met we talked and cried. Appalling things have happened to her - she's been arrested, raped and other things that you can't imagine. In Zimbabwe you can be arrested for holding a meeting or a banner. She hides Nurofen in her hair because she knows that they are going to hurt her. It's life on such an extreme edge - she is like a woman at war, she puts herself on the front line.

For me it has never been a problem being friends with people from different backgrounds. Thabitha is from Africa, and I grew up in the West Country; Thabitha is a warrior and I consider myself to be a coward. When I ask her how she manages to survive she says, "You have a fifth gear; there is somewhere else you go in very extreme times." My fear is that I don't have the fifth gear and my hope is that I do.

I wish I could spend more time with Thabitha. I still haven't cooked her roast chicken, which is what I'd really love to do. We did have a marvellous day together once when we went to see a play about Mugabe and then walked back through Soho and we ended up in a posh hotel where we lounged around on sofas talking about men. We weren't focusing on the big problems - just laughing at the small ones.

I feel incredible affection for Thabitha - not just because of the campaign, but because I feel easy with her. In her own country many people don't want to know her because she puts her neck out. I think it's a lonely life for her. I hope that one day she and I could just be relaxed together. We had a brief glimpse of it very, very late at night on those sofas.

ACTSA has produced a Dignity.Period! wristband. The sale of one will provide one woman with three month's supply of sanitary products, tel: 020 3263 2001 or email campaigns@actsa.org

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