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Danai Gurira: The Celluloid Warrior Fighting Against HIV

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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.

READ MORE | Danai Gurira: ‘Fully Feminine And Fully Fierce’

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.

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