Born Yvonne Machaka, this internationally acclaimed South African singer is often referred to as the “Princess of Africa.” But she is best known by her catchy stage name Yvonne Chaka Chaka and serves as ambassador for Nelson Mandela’s 46664 Campaign. (The campaign’s moniker originated from Mandela’s prison number, and its mission is to raise global awareness about HIV/AIDS.) Chaka Chaka is also a tireless advocate who brings international attention to malaria—the biggest killer of children worldwide. She is UNICEF’s goodwill ambassador against the disease and an ambassador for the Roll-Back Malaria Partnership, an initiative launched in 1998 to mobilize a global response to the disease. We speak to the respected and revered singer about what motivates her three-pronged health care advocacy.

What motivated you to become the ambassador for Nelson Mandela’s 46664 Campaign?

Living in South Africa, seeing poorer people, seeing women and children dying and just getting this man [Mandela] who took a stand to want to do things for people after he had been incarcerated for 27 years. Doing activist politics for either our freedom or for people to live well for 67 years, you couldn’t have said no, I couldn’t have said no when he asked me to do it.

What are your duties as ambassador?

My duties as ambassador are to visit different places and do fund-raising. I’m also one of the lucky people who have given money to some organizations in Ghana from the Mandela foundation. I was personally asked by Mandela’s office to take a check of $4 million to Ghana. But it’s not that I just do fund-raising. When I do something for the foundation or just do things for other people, I always question who benefits, who got what. If you say you have five charities, who got how much?

What would you say are some of the campaign’s biggest achievements in raising global awareness for HIV/AIDS?

For me, coming to New York City and seeing that people here were aware of the cause and would give a lending hand opened my eyes that people want to help. I’ve performed in Cape Town, and I’ve been to other projects that the campaign is doing. As UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassador, I’ve gone into communities to see how people live with the surge of AIDS and malaria. There is awareness in the whole world. You see it when Nelson Mandela asks people to support this campaign. I think that people want to do good and people have got some real humanity in them.

What critical HIV/AIDS issues do you feel still need to be addressed?

Plenty. Obviously, there’s poverty and education, but stigma is the biggest killer. It’s one thing if people die because they’ve got AIDS. But people die because of the stigma [attached to having the virus]. People avoid accessing care because they are afraid that others will start pointing fingers at them, so it’s the stigma that is killing people. People would prefer to die quietly, not talk to others and not get medication rather than expose their status. They are afraid of what others will think and say about them. I really believe things would get better if we can overcome that fear and educate our people and convince them that it’s good for them to get tested and know their status. If you are negative, stay negative. If you are positive, live positive, be positive and respect people’s privacy.

What’s the connection between your HIV advocacy and the work you do to increase awareness about malaria and tuberculosis?

I am a big activist in the fight against malaria, and I can tell you about the things that we do to advocate awareness for that disease. AIDS, tuberculosis (TB) and malaria go together; that’s why I’m so involved in that struggle. If you go to rural areas where pregnant women are diagnosed with malaria or they’re just getting sick, half of them have got TB or they are HIV positive. For me there’s a link. It’s like a nation of all these sicknesses. I don’t believe we should look at any of these diseases individually because they work together. A person who’s got AIDS will never die because of the virus. More likely they will die of some related disease, such as pneumonia or TB or illnesses of that kind. Maybe it would happen if there’s a lack of nutrition because people die if they don’t have access to good food. You can’t give people antiretrovirals if they don’t have good food. Also, how do you start taking a pill if you live in poverty? It’s a combination of everything. To me, the most important thing is education. Once people are educated, once people open their minds to know their status, it becomes easier for them to avoid sitting there feeling sorry for themselves. It’s easier for them to become motivated to go and do something to better their lives.

You participated in a voluntary HIV testing and counseling pilot program in Kenya—the Integrated Prevention Demonstration—that offered incentives to people who tested for the virus. It succeeded in testing more than 47,000 people. Tell us about the program and your involvement in it.

In addition to focusing on HIV, that program also integrated prevention of malaria and diarrhea. The campaign was conceptualized, implemented and funded by a Swiss-based company called Vestergaard Frandsen. They also have offices in London and Kenya—they’ve got offices everywhere. They sell anti-malaria bed nets. They wanted to do this whole integrated program and asked me to be part of it. I think it was because of my popularity in Kenya and me being UNICEF’s goodwill ambassador against malaria. Vestergaard Frandsen wanted to make a difference. For me it was a good thing because they were not only addressing one health issue.

[As part of the program,] older women and men and young girls and boys (who had to get permission from their parents) and young adults over 18 tested for HIV. In return, the company gave them water purification tanks and bed nets to sleep under. [This was part of a CarePack, which also included condoms and health education materials; those who tested positive for HIV received a starter pack of a broad-spectrum antibiotic and were referred to a local HIV treatment and care center.]

Those incentives encouraged people to get tested so they could know their HIV status. The first two days of the event, we had more women than men. We visited 57 locations and provided musical entertainment and I performed. But we weren’t only entertaining—we were educating the people. I spoke to a few men and some of the young boys’ teachers. After two or three days, we had many more men. They said, Yvonne Chaka Chaka is asking us to do this. I told them that they would go alone inside the tent to get tested. I told them that I wouldn’t know whether they were negative or positive because that was private. We didn’t want people to feel that we were forcing them to get tested; we just wanted them to know their status. After three or four days, we had men streaming through coming in for testing. It was amazing to see the response that people gave us.

You are also involved in programs to empower African women and protect children to decrease their risk for these diseases. What are these programs trying to accomplish, and when you speak to women, what do you say to them?

I’m an African woman, and I know it is so impossible for a woman to even take a child to the doctor. Why? Because they don’t have a say. Can you imagine your child is sick and has a high temperature and you can’t even take the child to the doctor because you have to wait for your husband to come back? It’s silly. We need to empower these women and tell them that they can make decisions; they can take a stand. They don’t have to wait until their husbands come back because if they wait maybe later the child will be dead. We are saying to women that they have to think on their feet as well; they have to be able to do things for themselves.

And if there are programs giving out little grants, we lobby that these initiatives give to women first before giving to men. Why? Because if you give money to women, then those women are able to make sure they get [anti-malaria] nets for themselves and their children to sleep under. It allows them to get medication for their children if they are sick. When you empower women—whether it’s financially or educationally—or just give them skills, they make use of it and make life better for themselves and their families.

But I don’t mean that we should leave our men behind. We always have to take them with us. I know it becomes so difficult for men when they feel that a woman is independent or a woman is earning more. We all have to do these things together because it becomes so sad in African culture that a woman’s place should be in the kitchen. I don’t agree with that. I think we’re all equal in the eyes of the Lord, and men and women have to share the responsibilities for their children as husbands and wives. As partners, we must do things together to make this world a better place for our children. If we don’t make their lives better now, what kind of society are we going to have? What kind of people are we going to raise for a better future?