Danai Gurira: The Celluloid Warrior Fighting Against HIV

Published 5 years ago

HIV/AIDS remains a global concern. International star and Zimbabwean playwright Danai Gurira is using her celebrity to battle for its elimination.

A superhero on the big screen and now a possible superhero in real life, actor and playwright, Danai Gurira, is making it her mission to join the fight against HIV/AIDS.

She is known for playing General Okoye in one of last year’s biggest films, Black Panther, which grossed over a billion dollars worldwide.


The famous Zimbabwean says the fight against the epidemic has been evident in her life ever since she was a little girl.

Recently appointed a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, she chats to FORBES AFRICA about her work.

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On December 3, 2018, a day after the Global Citizen Festival where Gurira made an appearance as a co-host to rapturous applause from an audience of 75,000 in Johannesburg, we meet her at an HIV clinic on the outskirts of the city in a township called Tembisa. It’s a trial clinic called Imbokodo for testing a combination of two experimental vaccines to prevent HIV.


At the clinic, Gurira meets with a group of women heading it, to discuss and learn how the trials work.

One of the women, dressed in a pink blouse, responsible for creating the trial vaccine, talks to Gurira about their work. Maria Grazia Pau is the Senior Director, Compound Development Team Leader, for the HIV vaccine programs at Janssen.

 Pau has over 18 years of experience in the field of viral vectors.

“We have seen responses in the body systemically when we check the blood but also we have checked other studies, and we do see responses there,” she tells Gurira.


Everyone in the room pays attention.

“The composition is complex, we want to protect from many different types of HIV because there are so many traits everywhere,” Pau says.

“Right,” Gurira nods attentively.

“It is the answer to elimination,” Gurira says.


The group of women join in the conversation.

They may just be on a breakthrough to finding an HIV vaccine.

The study is being conducted by the HIV Vaccine Trials Network, Janssen Vaccines & Prevention B.V., part of the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson, and all the participating study clinics.

These partners are working in collaboration with community stakeholders to ensure this research is acceptable to the local community and respectful of local cultures.


With 27 sites on the continent alone, they have clinics in countries including Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique.

Gurira has recently collaborated with them to help further their research and spread awareness about the disease.

Gurira was born in the United States (US) and later moved to Zimbabwe, when she was a young girl.

Growing up in Harare, she saw and heard a number of stories relating to HIV that touched her deeply.


The 1980s were a time when the disease had started spreading globally.

“I can’t really extricate my upbringing from understanding how this epidemic hit southern Africa and how it changed the tapestry of life,” she says.

The stigma around the disease and how women were treated were some of the issues that concerned her.

“Growing up, I witnessed how it was affecting, not only cultural dynamics, but also exacerbating issues around gender dynamics and various things that filled me with great passion,” she says.

“How women were dealing with a great amount of stigma in the family; if HIV was in the homestead, the involvement of even in-laws and how that was being interpreted –  about faulting a woman. [As well as] blame imposed upon women and the loss of a spouse and how that would affect how a woman was treated post that time. So there were a lot of things affecting me as I grew up and as I watched these things happen.”

 It was those personal experiences that shaped how she viewed HIV and the importance of eradicating it.

It was later that she moved back to the US and pursued a career in psychology and then a masters in Fine Arts.

How people perceived HIV there, was not what she expected.

“Coming to the US and seeing how the African was viewed as a statistic; I was seeing real people with real stories and experiences who were truly people who had aspirations and careers and had many things going for them that they were working towards.”

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At the time, antiretroviral (ARV) therapy had not yet been introduced and there was no way to manage it.

“It was such a death sentence at the time,” she says.

“And to come to the US to find that what we were dealing with in southern Africa was statistical, that also gave a great amount of need to bridge that very unfortunate disconnect between the actual human experience of it and the value of people who were being affected by this… and how they were being viewed.”

While there, she connected with some of her friends who did field work around the issue while she was more focused on her advocacy in the field of arts.

She married her advocacy for HIV with her passion for the arts.

Gurira began writing plays in an effort to use her strengths as an actor, and tell stories about issues she felt strongly about.

She co-wrote and co-starred in In the Continuum, a play about HIV/AIDS from the perspective of a married Zimbabwean woman.

With this play, her aim was to break away from the “statistical component of how the African is viewed often”.

In December 2011, In the Continuum commemorated World AIDS Day.

Little did she know that was the beginning of her activism against HIV/AIDS.

The ‘golden age’ of HIV science

Glenda Gray, a National Research Foundation A-rated scientist, CEO and President of the South African Medical Research Council. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

The same year, a woman in South Africa by the name of Dr Glenda Gray, was elected into the US Institute of Medicine, National Academies, as a foreign associate for her research on preventing HIV-infected mothers from passing the virus to their newborns.

She is a National Research Foundation A-rated scientist, CEO and President of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC).

She is a qualified paediatrician and clinician and co-founder of the internationally recognized Perinatal HIV Research Unit in Soweto, South Africa.

In December 2018 on the same day of the interview, Gray and Gurira meet at the Imbokodo clinic.

Gray is one of the leaders of the trials at the clinic.

“We are in a golden age in terms of HIV science and hopeful about making huge advancements in HIV vaccine developments,” she says.

Much like Gurira, Gray was also confronted with the epidemic at a young age.

“As a young doctor, I saw HIV explode in my face and imagine if we can, in my medical career, go from the beginning of an epidemic to the end of an epidemic; that would be an amazing feat to be part of the team that finds an HIV vaccine.”

What Gray has endeavored to do is to find an HIV vaccine that protects women and in the future, children and adolescents as well.

READ MORE | What does it mean to be HIV-undetectable or to have a suppressed viral load?

“We definitely are not going to be able to treat ourselves out of this epidemic if we don’t find potent biomedical interventions, we are not going to be able to turn off the tap,” she says.

Gray has dealt with innumerable women affected by HIV.

“I am sick and tired of HIV and I am sick and tired of how it devastates lives and I am sick and tired of how it impacts women in Africa,” Glenda says.

Gray, together with Dr Paul Stoffels, who is the head of research and development for Johnson & Johnson, have been trying to prove HIV vaccines work.

Stoffels and his team have been working with HIV for more than 25 years, developing ARV medication.

The medication has evolved from many pills a day to one a day, he says.

“We are working on new medicines to bring it to an injectable to once every day to once every month. But we can treat HIV patients but they need to be treated for the rest of their lives,” he says.

“People can have normal life expectancy and live normal lives with medicine but we won’t be able to stop the epidemic if we don’t get to a vaccine.”

Dr Paul Stoffels, who is the head of research and development for Johnson & Johnson. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

He says that the vaccine they have been working on has been very active in animal models and they have now shifted to clinical trials in humans to prove that it works.

“We are at a stage that we do the first efficacy study and at the same time first we prove that it is safe and that it can be used by people and then we prove that it is efficacious,” he says.

The people who become part of the vaccine study will be part of the trial for years.

However, one of the challenges, he says they face is finding people who are at risk to commit to being part of the long-term study.

Therefore, it is important to bring awareness to the public about such studies being done.

“HIV prevention needs important people such as global stars to step in and with Global Citizen, we had a perfect platform to be on the global stage. And Danai is one of the people well known in Africa and she is very committed to this objective and so we started collaborating with her to bring the message of prevention, and also the message of importance of research in getting to the HIV vaccines, in getting people to participate as well as to stay on,” he says.

Other celebrities also known for the advocacy of HIV include musician and actor Lady Gaga, musician Bono, television host Ellen DeGeneres and musician Alicia Keys.

“What’s very important, I think, for a person like her [Gurira] is to give the message of hope that one day we will be able to combat the disease but at the same time, it is a message of ‘at this moment we need to prevent’,” says Stoffels.

Gray agrees.

“She [Gurira] understands what it’s like to be a young woman, she understands what it’s like to be a black young woman and how difficult it is to navigate safe sex, masculinity, patriarchy and so she comes with a lot of soul and insight.”

Eliminating the epidemic

After the release of In the Continuum, Gurira toured her play in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

“I met some courageous people on the ground at the front line of this epidemic.”

Through that, she was able to connect to a number of organizations which she then got involved in.

“It not only allowed me to learn more but become more of a vessel for advocacy and awareness,” Gurira says.

“It is really powerful to me that these women are here [at the clinic] helming this study that could really eliminate this epidemic.

“There have been epidemics that have existed in past human history that have been eliminated through vaccination and we could actually see that come to pass. I am sitting on a site where this could come to pass for HIV/AIDS, which is the epidemic of our time,” she says, hopeful.

“I’d like to see it eliminated.

“There are times when we tend to think that ‘oh HIV it is being managed, and ARVs exist,’ and we forget that it is still a very active fight.”

According to AVERT, an international HIV and AIDS charity, in 2017, there were roughly 1.8 million new HIV infections, the same as in 2016 –  about 5,000 new infections per day.

Therefore, Gurira says awareness is very important to avoid the “issue fading in the background”.

From left to right, Dr Paul Stoffels, Danai Gurira and
Dr Glenda Gray. Picture: Supplied by Global Citizen

Having been born in the US and being Zimbabwean, her fight for HIV has become global.

 Since her appointment by the UN, she aims for a larger reach.

Gurira says despite women being the focus of her advocacy, everyone, including men and boys, need to be a part of this fight.

“As Canadian Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau recently said, which I really appreciated, he called himself a feminist. He said, ‘I am a feminist and to be feminist you believe in the equality of men and women and you believe there is a lot of work to do to get to that place’.”

The fight against HIV continues to be a global phenomenon, but with more awareness raised and efforts from everyone, we could be one vaccine away from eliminating it.