Cynthia Nombeko Mpongo is an HPTN 084 Community Working Group member and community liaison administrator at the Desmond Tutu Health Foundation in Cape Town, South Africa. She is the author of Nakanjani, a short story and poetry book, and co-author of the novel Whisper Not. Mpongo holds degrees in psychological counseling and social behavior. She has coordinated the City of Cape Town’s employee wellness program for 17 years.
What attracted you to a career in HIV prevention research?
For many years, communities in low- and medium-income countries buried their breadwinners and those with scarce skills due to HIV and AIDS-related deaths. Medical treatment became available in different sub-Saharan countries, but there was no treatment for the stigma and negativity associated with HIV. Individuals living with HIV became statistics in many ways. Maintaining adherence has not always been easy. I worked in the Care Program for the City of Cape Town for 17 years. I could see clients facing many challenges as they struggled to accept their diagnosis. I wanted to do something, so I joined the Community Advisory board (CAB) in 2004. Treatment was still not readily available then, but clinical research gave us hope. I was always excited to attend the CAB meetings, knowing I would learn something new.
What would you say most motivates you to do what you do?
I am always inspired by the number of prevention products developed for our communities. I get very excited to know that our adolescent girls and young women (AGYW) will gain access to HIV prevention tools, thus limiting their chances of HIV infection. I remember very well when PrEP was approved as a prevention method. I was thrilled to know that I was part of the solution. I wanted to do more; it is a passion for me. I like the fluidity of research that allows one to evaluate processes continuously and consider new methods whenever needed. PrEP opened doors for communities and researchers to speak realistically about HIV risk behavior and prevention and think beyond just condom use. We now know that vaginal rings and CAB LA offer protection against HIV as well. I am always inspired by the number of prevention products developed for our communities.
What has been the biggest challenge working in HIV prevention research?
I work in a highly impoverished community. Contributing to change is my forever dream. HIV is known in every household here. I am known in many homes as I live openly with HIV. During the era where hope and prayer kept us going, as there was no access to treatment in our country, I was amongst those who were called to provide motivation when there was a new HIV diagnosis. I was also named to preach hope at the funerals of a loved one who died from AIDS-related illnesses. Prominent people were killed in our communities. Childcare has completely changed. Many children were left orphaned due to AIDS-related deaths. They are angry and continuously live in fear. They do not have safe spaces to run to for support.
Who has been the most significant influence in your career? Why?
I have many people who influenced my career, and I appreciate every contribution they have made to my career path and ongoing, but I am now going to choose one. Dr. Nomathamsanqa Nogwebela. She is from Mount Frere in the Eastern Cape. Sis Thami, as we affectionately call her, used to be my Physics teacher in high school. She spotted potential in me as a learner. I don’t even know how it started. She became a big sister. My mother was unemployed, and I would do house chores with different families to survive. I knew what I wanted to do and who I wanted to become. Sis Thami would always help and ensure I didn’t struggle with school needs. She always told me how resourceful and motivating I am to other learners. I will never forget that. I ended up staying in her home to be closer to school. She taught me how valuable education is and how to escape peer pressure. She is the most remarkable doctor I know. From her, I learned that giving up is not an option. I realized I could do everything I wanted with my strength and pace. She would always tell me that I would be a bigger and better person if I knew how to transform external negativity into something positive that contributed to my personal growth and strain all the nonsense that could hold me down.
What volunteering or passion projects do you do outside of work?
I am very passionate about young people. I stay in a remote area in the far North of Cape Town. My neighborhood needs to be more knowledgeable about many things happening in the Central part of the city. I moved to that area for different reasons, and it works for me. I have opened my house as a safe space for young boys and girls. We meet every second week to discuss different topics of interest. Parents love the programs we do, and they know that their children are safe in my space. I volunteer as a facilitator with Activist Education & Development Centre (AEDC) in their offices in Ottery. AEDC is one of our prominent stakeholders and a site ally. These young girls and boys are now part of AEDC programs. They also gain exposure to real-life issues and solutions by joining more significant events. I am also passionate about shelters for abused or neglected women and children.
What has been the most unusual or interesting job you’ve ever had?
In 1997 I earned a diploma in reflexology. My mom kept giving me that look whenever I mentioned it. As a student, I started raising awareness about it and gathering clientele for when I finished my courses. I also needed them for practice. It was exciting. Sadly, I can’t do my own feet and enjoy. My college was in Port Elizabeth, which is another province. My mother was even more confused that I would sacrifice time and money to study something far from home. I loved it. I love it. I completed my diploma, and I started making money from it. We were also offered a massage course as a complementary. That significantly boosted my income, even though some people find being naked in the massage process uncomfortable. I must say that people love reflexology.