Evelina Tshabalala

Accomplished marathon runner and mountaineer Evelina Tshabalala isn’t a “give-up” kind of woman. She’s a fighter and a winner. “Even though I’m HIV-positive, I’m stronger than normal people,” she points out. “I do things that most normal people can’t do.”

Like summiting the world’s highest mountains including Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Elbrus in Russia and Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest peak on Earth outside of the Himalayas.

This remarkable woman is a shining example of a truly inspirational positive hero. In her own words: “I’m a role-model because I’m proof that life is not finished when you have HIV. I want to be an example for people in South Africa”.

Evelina Tshabalala rocked her physician’s perceptions during her first visit to the Positive Lives HIV Wellness Centre. Unlike many of her peers she was not dying of her HIV disease, she was about to summit mountains. In fact, the Seven Summits, the highest mountain on each continent.

Evelina is one of the bravest women in Africa. Born and bread in rural Kwazulu-Natal she became a mother at the age of 15. She strived for a better life for her and her son, called Doctor, and moved to Cape Town to take up domestic work. She soon developed a zest for road running and excelled. Finding sponsors and the means to get to events proved to be a constant struggle, but nevertheless Evelina was soon running marathons. Within three years she was cruising ultra-marathons and won bronze at the South African Championships and came 25th in the London Marathon.

Tragedy struck in 2003. Apart from her father being fatally assaulted in her presence, Evelina had to confront even worse hardship. Her face fades when she talks about the day her second son Emmanuel drowned during an epilepsy attack. Her fading health was yet another concern. She decided to go for an HIV test, as her health was now affecting her running. “I said whatever the result, I will deal with it, I’ll be proud if it’s good, if it’s bad – I’ll be strong.”

And Evelina has been strong. From day one Evelina has shared her HIV status with her immediate family, friends and even more so with her community. This is an exceptional deed of bravery in a continent where HIV sufferers are still often stigmatised, alienated, isolated and abandoned. Now on ARVs, her CD4 count (immune count) is up, her HIV viral load is down and her focus stronger than ever

Celebrity status was a natural consequence and reward for this brave lady of Africa. She has become a hero in her local community. Her most loyal fans are the children of her community. She has never forgotten her roots and the sight of Evelina running on Hout Bay beach with the children of Imizamo Yethu has become a frequent occurrence during weekends. She has been the feature of numerous newspaper and magazine articles including one of only a few Africans to feature on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Radio interviews, local and international followed. At least 2 television documentaries featured a fearless Evelina living a positive life with HIV.

To Evelina life is simple and the limelight is irrelevant. She focuses on the immediate challenge and the reward usually follows. She still remembers her first test of strength in mountaineering. She is a woman from Africa and had to summit the highest summit in Africa first. Could she really attempt this being HIV positive and on ARVs? She remembers reaching the peak of Mount Kilamanjaro. “Everything was frozen. I called out the names of my mom, my dad, Emmanuel to be with me – I did it so everyone in South Africa would be proud of me.”

And no one was prouder than Evelina when she got to meet Nelson Mandela as a result: “That was so fantastic!”

With everyone she has met, Evelina has brought about paradigm shifts in the manner HIV was previously perceived. She is taking away the fear of HIV. She is taking away the fear of HIV testing. Why fear a positive result if HIV can be managed like Evelina`s disease? She is taking away the fear of HIV treatment! She is summating mountains and living life to the full whilst on ARV`s.

Evelina is helping to take away the fear of stigmatization and every child in Imizamo Yethu wants to be an Evelina.

Evelina is a Founder Member of Positive Heroes.