Near the end of my visit to the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital, a beautiful woman in a stylish brown blouse and tight wine-colored jeans strode into the H.I.V./AIDS ward with her husband and two young children in tow. They seemed a perfect African family and, in a sense, they were, at least in the context of this ward: the wife and husband are H.I.V. positive, but their young children are not.
Joyce Dzidzor-Nartey is a 26-year-old singer, activist, and motivational speaker. Self-confident and charismatic, she told me that she had been made an “H.I.V. Ambassador” by the government and appeared regularly on TV and in schools to talk about H.I.V. and sex. Later that day at a seaside restaurant she calmly recounted her story to me over coffee.
Joyce was raped at 16, recorded an album at 17, then was invited to join the choir at her stepfather’s church. At 19, she began a relationship with the 47-year-old choirmaster who got her pregnant and infected her with H.I.V. He died three days before the baby was born, and Joyce moved to a compound her parents shared with several other families. Stigmatized, she was beaten and thrown out onto the street by her neighbors. She survived by selling her gospel CD. The baby stayed behind with Joyce’s mother. The only good news was that when she found out she was H.I.V.-positive, Joyce started antiretrovirals and did not pass along the virus to her child.
While on the street she met a pastor who took a liking to her and sent her to Amsterdam to talk about H.I.V. prevention in churches to the sizable Ghanaian community there. She was good at it and appeared on radio and television, too. The Ghana AIDS Commission took note, and brought her back to do the same thing in Ghana. She became very popular (and also married and had another child). She loves the advocacy work, and proudly told me, “My popularity is due to being very open about how I contracted H.I.V. People want to hear from people living with H.I.V., not the same old story from professional doctors with all the technicalities.” She talks mostly about the risks of pre-marital sex. (“Avoid it, but, if you must, use a condom.”) “My greatest ambition was to grow up and marry as a virgin,” she says. “I couldn’t achieve that, but when I share my story with someone younger, they connect, and I see them crying, especially the girls.”
With this type of frank talk, 95 percent of Ghanaians are now fully aware of H.I.V. and AIDS. The program has been so effective that in October the Ghana AIDS Commission announced that, besides ending mother-to-child H.I.V.transmission by 2015, it believed it would end virtually all new cases of H.I.V. period.
Joyce has moved on from the role of H.I.V. Ambassador. She has recently produced a movie, My Cross Roads, that tells her story and is meant to complement the government’s advocacy efforts. She plays herself in the movie—her first acting role. She also now works singing backup for popular Ghanaian musicians.