It’s a clear winter morning in Pretoria.
On a suburban lawn, under the shade of a tree, a group of young actors is rehearsing for an upcoming production of the play, "My Children! My Africa!"
Saidy Brown, 22, plays the character of Isabella. Brown is a young actress, but she’s spent a lifetime performing. She started when she was a teenager. She was at a school event, and health workers were doing free HIV testing. Brown thought it would be fun.
"So, I went in there, and I had an HIV test, and ... " she trails off.
She tested positive. She was 14. She was a virgin.
"The first thing I asked her was, 'How?' Those were the only words that kept ringing in my mind. "How?" I begged her to do another test."
This is when she started her big performance. Her own.
Act I: The girl who doesn’t tell anyone
“I just kept everything in — walked out and just continued the happy persona that I am.”
She went home, where she lived with her auntie. Brown never said anything to anyone, but she thought about it all the time. She remembers sitting in health class "and it was just 'AIDS kills. AIDS kills. Be careful, and condomize, do this and that.' And for a 14-year-old, seeing those things, it still scared me that — "OK ... so, when is my time coming?""
South Africa was in the midst of an HIV epidemic that continues to this day. They confront it with education programs, warnings about the importance of using condoms and calls for abstinence. But no one could be prepared for what came next — a generation of children born with the virus.
And that’s what Brown found out had happened. About six months after her HIV test, she finally broke down and told her aunt. And her aunt’s response shocked her.
“I knew about your parents. I just didn’t know about you.”
Her parents had died when she was about 9 — first her dad, then her mom. It never crossed her mind that they might have died of AIDS-related diseases. She was just never told what they died of.
Brown says she was furious. She started piecing together all these childhood memories. “I always think of my mom crying at my dad’s funeral, and I think — she actually knew. I literally felt betrayed by my parents. By God. By my aunt. I felt betrayed by everyone.”
She wrote a lot about those feelings — she reads this letter that she penned. As if HIV were a person she could confront.
“Because of you, I am an orphan. Because of you, I am alone. All that is happening is just too much. I’ve tried so much to live by the book. I’ve tried so much to behave. And yet, you still managed to get me. My attempts to escape you were all in vain because I have always had you. Because of you, life has spiraled out of control. I am fully aware that I have no right questioning God’s will. But he took the only two people [my parents] I could question about this.”
For the next few years, Brown just carried on. As if nothing had happened. Until she turned 16.
In August in South Africa, it’s windy and dusty. The winter nights can be cold; during the day, the sun burns. Brown started to get sore around her body and face. Her T-cell count, which is one indicator of the strength of an immune system, had plummeted to around 100.
A normal count is between 500 and 1,500. Brown was in trouble. Her HIV was advancing. She finally went to a clinic and started taking antiretrovirals to suppress the virus.
Which is the beginning of ...
Act II: The girl who has HIV tells everyone
“I am still very much alive. Most babies born with this virus die much earlier. That just goes to show that I was born on this Earth for a purpose. And not even two lines on an HIV testing material will bring me down. I am grateful for the life I still have. God, you know this,” she says.
She told her friends, and they rallied around her. In the next few years, she became what she calls “an H-I-Victor.” An outspoken activist.
It isn’t always this upbeat, living with the virus. Brown says the thought of taking medication for the rest of her life is sometimes daunting. And so is dating. She’s been rejected because of her HIV status and says it was devastating. But right now, she’s in a relationship with a woman. She’s really happy.
“She knows about my status. Because I’m just that person. I’m like, 'Dude. I’m HIV-positive.'”
Update: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Saidy Brown's name.