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Independent Appeal: The rape victim who took the stigma out of HIV

The victim of an appalling crime when she was nine, Memory Phiri was treated like an outcast. The experience has turned her into an eloquent campaigner against prejudice. Paul Vallely reports

"You can be a hero," said the young woman, looking directly into my eyes. "There is a hero in you." This was not flattery. Memory Phiri believes that anyone can do something of heroic stature, if they so choose. After all, she did.

She does not look an obvious candidate. A diminutive figure, with eyes almost as big as her hooped earrings and feet clad in boots that look as if they came from children's department, she looks like a slip of a schoolgirl as she sits quietly in the green room backstage at the Royal Albert Hall. But she has come a long way from the little village in Zambia, where she was raped when she was only nine, to become one of the world's most persuasive Aids campaigners. Now just 20, she was about to step out on to the stage to address an audience of 4,000 people.

The occasion was a concert to mark the 50th anniversary of VSO, the charity once known as Voluntary Service Overseas, one of the three charities being supported by this year's Independent Christmas Appeal. On stage were the South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and a bill of internationally renowned African artists, including Angelique Kidjo. Yet Memory seemed unfazed to be among their number.

Her journey has been extraordinary. Eleven years ago, Memory and her sister, who was 14, had accepted a lift home from a man in a lorry after visiting her sister's dying husband in a Zambian hospital. After dropping her sister off, the man raped the nine-year-old. That same year, her mother died (her father had died when she was seven) and she and her siblings were split up. The boys went to live with their grandma and she was sent to live with an aunt.

When she was 13, her aunt decided she could not afford to keep her and sent her to an orphanage. The City of Hope orphanage just outside the capital, Lusaka, has links with the Zambia Open Community Schools project, which provides a free basic education to 16,000 orphans in a country where, still, a third of children between seven and 13 (mostly girls) do not attend school. VSO provides many of the teachers who volunteer to work in the schools and assists with books, clothing and food.

On arrival at the orphanage, each girl is given a medical check-up. There the Salesian nuns who ran it discovered Memory was HIV-positive. "They didn't tell me immediately," she says. "I was the only one of the 84 girls there who was positive. They discussed among themselves how they should handle the situation." But one of the other pupils, who was washing up in the nuns' kitchen, overheard. Not long after, graffiti appeared on the wall outside her classroom. It read, "Memory Phiri has Aids", she says.

"The other girls right away didn't want to play with me. They even refused to eat with me. I went to see the nun in charge, an Italian named Sister Maria, who sent me to see a counsellor. The counsellor gave me a lot of information about HIV. I thought, 'Why is she telling me all this?' And then it clicked, and I started crying. It was my most saddest moment in life. My grandmother had just died. My two young brothers were eight and 10; who was going to look after them?"

Sister Maria arranged for Memory to meet counsellors who were HIV-positive. "That gave me great courage," Memory says. "I thought, 'If they can live with it then I can'." But the other girls in the orphanage continued to shun and scorn her. At this point, Memory took a courageous step. "With Sister Maria's help, I called them into groups and told them my story. All the girls wept when they heard. They thought that to have HIV must mean you were a prostitute or had been sleeping around with boys." The school bully, who had written the graffiti, apologised to Memory. "A number of girls had been raped too but had never been able to talk about it. They came to me privately and told me their story. It all changed. Everyone was kind to me."

Her HIV counsellors were impressed by the instinctive skill with which she handled her peers. They arranged for her to begin counselling training. She was put on anti-retroviral drugs and her condition began to improve. Her CD4 count – which measures the level of HIV in the blood and helps predict the risk of complications and infections – rose from 104 to 700 (the range in normal adults is between 500 to 1,500 cells per cubic millimetre of blood). Her latest was 1001 as her body continues to respond to the anti-HIV therapy.

"I have to take my medicine at 7am and 7pm, and can't miss by more than 30 minutes," she says. "I have to eat lots of nutritious vegetables. But it is important to feed the mind too; if you say, 'I will die soon', you will; but if you say, 'I will see my children's children' then you take control. When you have a car, it is you who is the driver, and you tell the virus, which is the passenger, where it will go. I feel much healthier now." The advice she gives herself is the same as she now delivers to HIV-positive people the world over.

The process has helped her come to terms with the rape which gave her the virus. "I think it will always be in my mind. He was a stranger but I can remember his face. At first, I had evil thoughts about him. But through the therapies I was trained in as a counsellor I came to see that I am not the problem, he is the problem. I used to feel if I see him I would kill him, but today I would just look at him and nothing else. But it has taken me five or six years to get to that point."

In the process, she became a national figure as the first girl in Zambia to break the news that she had HIV. She became a poster-girl in schools, clinics and hospitals, and attended international conferences in South Africa, Malawi, Nigeria and New York where she addressed the United Nations "to tell them how people in the rural areas with HIV are still neglected". She added: "I feel proud of myself. By the time I die, I know I'll have had an impact on many people's lives. I've tried to do my best."

Her favourite technique in dealing with children orphaned by HIV, or who have themselves contracted the virus, is what she calls a hero book. "In it, you look back at where you have come from. You write down your happiest moment, your saddest one, and tell the story of someone who has been a hero in your life. Not Superman or even Nelson Mandela. It might be your mother or father, or your auntie, anyone whose courage you admire. A hero is a person who is able to overcome a problem without hurting others." At this point Hugh Masekela, the master of African jazz, a dumpy man in a flat cap, enters the Albert Hall green room. He asks to meet her, and she hugs him casually. "He looks fatter than in his photograph," she says after he has gone. The star is clearly not her hero, so who is? "Sister Maria. She is a very strong lady, very hardworking, full of ideas. She's like my mother, so caring and so kind. She gave me hope when I had no hope."

Through her training, Memory has also been catching up on her education, doing two school years in one for the past seven years. "I am in grade 12 now. Most people in the class are 18 and two years younger than me, but that is OK. Next year, I will begin to train to do accounts and get a job so I can save the money to train to be a doctor," she says, calculating that in four years she will have earned enough to begin her seven-year medical training. She will be a doctor, she says, by the time she is 31. She would like to specialise in paediatrics.

"I know people who are not HIV-positive who have no hope for life. But me, every morning, I smile and say, 'It's a new day and I'm breathing'." Then she adds: "There is a strength in all of us; we just have to find it." Of such stuff heroes are made. You could be a hero too. Do something heroic today.

Click here to watch Memory Phiri's story