July 29, 2008
Fortunata was diagnosed with HIV in 1997, while pregnant with her daughter. At that time, she had just emigrated from Tanzania to the United States. "Like anybody who received an HIV diagnosis, I was terrified. I don't remember being that scared in my life. It's just a horrifying moment for me. It took a long time for me to recover from this news." She was married at the time and her husband turned out to be HIV negative. He later left Fortunata and she faced many difficult years.
But a transformation took place in Fortunata's life and she became a dedicated HIV/AIDS activist. She now volunteers for the Campaign to End AIDS in Houston, Texas, where she lives with her daughter, who is now 10 years old and HIV negative.
Fortunata also often speaks publicly about HIV. She recalls the first time she ever spoke to an audience: "I got an invitation to speak in Kentucky. I remember after I finished, everybody stood up and remained standing for a few minutes, clapping. I was overwhelmed. ... Here I am, telling my business, right in front of people. I didn't know how they were going to react! The outcome was remarkable. ... The pastor from the community said, 'People here, they're very uptight, and very conservative thinking about this disease. You put a new face on it, and thank you.'"
Fortunata gets much of her support from the community of friends she made after her diagnosis. But she says her family in Tanzania is also an important source of support. "They talk to me constantly on the phone," she says. "They pray for me, and they're there for me. I'm blessed that way."