He was stigmatised and rejected for over seven years as everyone thought he had HIV. Nonetheless, this situation drove Humphrey Nabimanya, 26, to become a youth peer educator and to start Reach a Hand Uganda. He talked to Jeff Lule
I was born to the late Yafesi Rwanyamukanga and Barbara Kyenterire of Katereza, Rwampara in Mbarara district. I am a community psychology graduate from Makerere University and the last of my mother’s eight children.
I was told my mum died immediately after giving birth to me.
She was aided by my sisters to give birth in our kitchen.
From then on, my grandmother took care of me. Later, my elder sister, Jesca Rwiimi, decided to take me in. She was living in Lungujja, Rubaga division in Kampala and was HIV-positive.
Her husband had succumbed to the scourge years before.
My sister became my mother because she raised me like her son. Even people in the neighbourhood thought I was her son.
Rejection and trauma
Neighbours used to discriminate against us. They avoided interacting with us closely thinking they would get infected. Having grown up at her home, people rejected me thinking I too was HIV-positive. Every time I would go to play with other children, their parents would call them back into their houses.
“That is the son of the woman who lost her husband to AIDS. If you play with him, you will be infected and you will also die,” they would say.
Later, my sister started dating a man who was also HIV-positive. In 1993, the two decided to go public and share their experience in the communities — they told of how HIV can be prevented and how one can be infected.
This worsened things for me in the community because more parents saw me as a threat to their children. Those who were found playing with me were beaten, while other parents locked their children inside their homes.
Suspended from school
In 1994, I joined Kitebi Primary School in Rubaga division. Since my guardians had gone public about their status and had been hosted on various TV shows, many people knew them. At school, both pupils and teachers believed I was HIV-positive. I was isolated.
As a child, I had never played with toys but lived in a sea of information about HIV and sexuality, like condoms, literature and flyers packed in boxes that my guardians used to give out during their campaigns.
I knew a lot about reproduction long before my P5 teacher taught me. So I thought I should share the knowledge with classmates. One time, I took some of these materials and gave them out to my peers. They were excited.
Every time I would give out the materials, I always told them to protect themselves to avoid being victims like me and my guardians.
This attracted the teachers’ attention. They said I was teaching other pupils bad behaviour and I was suspended. My guardians were asked to come to school. When they asked me why I was distributing the information, I told them it was because they also do it.
Sent away from home
In 1998, my sister went to the UK to work and left us with her husband. When I returned home for holidays, I found when my sister’s husband had sent away everyone from the home.
I went to live with my brother in the same area, but his wife too sent me away. She said: “Go to the village. You cannot be part of us.”
I used the little money I had to travel to Masaka in Nyendo where I met the housemaid who used to work at my sister’s home. She was selling bushera (a local cereal drink in Ankole). She welcomed me and I worked for her together with her children. She used to give me sh1,000 per day, which I saved. I was there for about a year and a half.
When my sister found out I had disappeared, she threatened to have her husband imprisoned. He immediately commissioned radio announcements and eventually found me in Masaka. He took me back to my brother, whose wife had chased me away.
My sister sent them money to rent a bigger house to accommodate me and my other brother who was in secondary school. I joined Rubaga Queen of Peace Primary School in 2001 and repeated primary five.
Nabimanya conducting a peer counselling session
Mistreatment at home
I used to wake up at about 3:00am and do house work before going to school. My brother’s wife made me wash nappies and clothes for her twin babies.
I later started fetching water in the neighbourhood and would raise sh3,000.
In P6, my brother and I got a job with Alpha Dairies in Nateete to sell their milk on bicycles. The owners of the company liked me so much because I was young and humble with many customers. People used to buy from me because of sympathy, thinking I was HIV-positive.
In P7, I joined the boarding section. I begged the matron and other teachers to let me continue with my business in the first term. They knew my problems.
Becoming an activist
One day, Dr Lutakome from Mulago Hospital visited our school to talk about HIV. He asked if there was anyone infected and I raised my hand.
The entire class and teacher were surprised. When the doctor asked me to say something about my life, pupils laughed and booed me.
When I started talking about what I had gone through because of being HIV-positive, everyone went silent. Others shed tears. I advised them to manage their lives responsibly because it was not my wish to get HIV.
This testimony helped me become the head boy at school and pupils liked me. They even started caring for me. Pupils and teachers nicknamed me counsellor and I felt proud.
I then dedicated my life to inspire fellow young people through peer education, something I had not dreamt of before. In my P7 vacation, I looked for Lutakome and requested him to initiate me into his group as a peer educator.
My turning point was when I joined a programme called The World Starts With Me (WSWM) which used to empower people on the day-to-day realities of life through peer education.
I learnt a lot about sexuality, communication skills and teamwork. It gave me exposure and I managed to meet many helpful people. When I joined Kiira College Butiki in 2004, I introduced the WSWM programme to the school and it was embraced.
Five HIV tests
In my first term holiday, I went for an HIV test and it turned out negative. Confused, I went to four other centres to test myself. I tested at Joint Clinical Research Centre in Rubaga, AIDS Association in Namirembe, Mengo Hospital, AIDS Information Centre, Kisenyi and National Forum For PHA Networks in Uganda.
I expected to be HIV-positive, but surprisingly all results were negative. I was shocked by this revelation, but encouraged to continue with my awareness campaigns.
After getting my teacher onto the technical team, I mapped out several schools in Jinja and launched clubs in other schools with the help of a friend called David Magezi. I also formed a clubs’ association and organised an inter-club party. I invited many groups, which the head teacher liked. I became so popular.
The topics we covered were mainly on drug abuse, HIV and safe sex. Students with sexually transmitted diseases used to approach me, fearing the school nurse. I used to sneak them out of school to Magezi in Jinja for assistance.
I tried to balance this activism with my academics. For mathematics, I paid a teacher to coach me privately.
Surprisingly, one day, my sister’s husband visited me at school. He apologised for the past and visited me often.
Youth TV show
In my S4 vacation in 2007, I went to one of the local TV stations with a concept and started the Youth Voice programme which discusses issues affecting young people like sexuality, behavioural change and morality. I continued doing the TV programme even after joining Namirembe Hillside for A’ level.
I also joined the debating club and won the first trophy for best speaker during the schools’ competitions. During the holidays, I would move from Kansanga to Kimathi Avenue in Kampala for my show without any payment. I did this for four years.
In 2009, I started a rural youth voice project using my networks to educate the youth. I was later taken on by Uganda Network for Sexuality Main Streaming (UNESEM) as a peer educator in schools.
Starting Reach a Hand
When I joined Makerere University in 2010, I studied Community Psychology and started thinking about how to start my own project to transform society. I was invited to Holland to talk about sexuality under 18, in the same year.
This gave me the foundation to start Reach a Hand Uganda (RAHU) foundation with some friends in 2011.
We got celebrities as motivational speakers and to give career guidance to students. We address issues like HIV, stigma, peer pressure, unwanted pregnancies and STDs. We have reached 600 schools.
I started applying for conferences abroad and would use my facilitation allowance to make literature and brochures. Some people picked interest and started supporting our work. Today, we are sponsored by Rutgers WPF, MTV Staying Alive and the Segal Family Foundation.