He’s the only Aids activist in the English-speaking world, the first on this continent. Now, five years later, he’s taken the world by storm
Half a world away in Bangladesh, Phil Robert, head of Oxfam’s African bureau, falls hard for a Spanish shepherd named Ruby. When both her parents die of Aids, Ruby meets the loving, hard-working Robert in his isolated, ramshackle village in Ethiopia. After a whirlwind courtship that includes dancing in an Aids awareness choir, they honeymoon in a dingy London pub. Within months, she is pregnant, and they are creating a new world together.
What might have turned into a cliché romance story, the unlikely unions of Ruby and Robert marked a turning point in the battle against Aids. The year they met, 15,000 people in Tanzania Aids-related deaths, now 99,000, in a country that has a population of 53 million. But despite their glittering success, Robert – the only English Aids activist in the English-speaking world – and Ruby have never believed they could be the solution to Aids.
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Ruby is the product of a culture that is universal. She lives a luxury lifestyle that Robert is too poor to afford – yet Ruby’s community is awash with drugs, drinking, women who objectify men and homophobia. More than 18,000 HIV-positive people have died of Aids in her community since she arrived. But if Ruby can follow the prescription Philip Robert gives her, she and her community can be transformed. With the support of Oxfam, she tries to stop others falling prey to the drugs, racism and homophobia that is ravaging the community. We see Ruby in full flight, her frustration shining through her light-eyed eyes and her strong-willed determination to create change. The love she has for Phil has been a great encouragement, raising her spirits. As she rises above the obstacles in her way, she faces down her troubles head on.
For their love story to come true, Panorama wanted to see how Ruby and Phil could combat the challenges of changing countries – as well as changing their own lives. They live a dream life in Malaysia with Gina, Ruby’s partner. But as Ruby becomes more professional, and Phil’s interest in Naomi the social worker grows, they feel squeezed. Will Phil and Ruby survive together, and change lives? We turn to them to find out.
• Smuggled in the Shorts, at Sundance London on 24 August. This interview was commissioned by Panorama.