DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA - Nompumelelo Simelane sees herself as an average teenager. She loves to cook, and spend time with her family and girlfriend. She also has HIV.
The virus makes her a part of a growing demographic in Africa, where the United Nations says AIDS is now the top killer of teenagers.
The 19-year-old Soweto resident — who was diagnosed with HIV at 13, and believes she was born with the virus — says adolescence and AIDS are a double whammy. But, she adds, people of her generation know more about the virus than their elders did, thanks to aggressive educational programs.
However, she says, knowing the importance of anti-retroviral drugs did not stop her from rebelling.
"At first, it was just something that I didn't know would hurt me or anything,” she said. “I was just like, ‘It's HIV, I'm gonna live, I'm gonna to live on ARVs and I'm gonna be fine.’ But as time went by, things started to change, and I do not know why. Maybe because I was growing up and starting to feel different now that I have the virus."
Teens at the International AIDS Conference in Durban say they need their own space in discussions about the virus. During the conference, they operated a radio station in which they talked about their experiences.
Disc jockey Beatrice Phiri says teens are eager to talk to each other about AIDS — through both new and old media.
"We have a lot of feedback, especially from people that are fans of Twitter,” Phiri said. “People are tweeting to us, people are coming through our booth, people are listening in, saying, 'I want to be on radio now, I want to voice out.’ "
Simelane's mother, Lindiwe — who is also HIV-positive — says parents need help and support in working with their HIV-positive children, especially when they lash out.
"Nompumelelo took it like she understood everything, but she didn't,” Lindiwe Simelane said.
The younger Simelane attends a teen support group, which she says helps. But, she says, her mother gave her the most important tool in fighting the disease: her unconditional love and support, so she does not have to fight alone.