Agnes Nakitende is HIV-positive. Six of her nine children also have the virus. At just 33, she is weather-beaten, you would think she was a 50-year-old.
The man I asked for directions to her place referred to her as â€œthe woman who was cursed!â€ Nakitende lives in Kirwanyi village, Seeta Nazigo, Mukono district.
She confirms that many refer to her that way, then breaks down sobbing: â€œWhy me, Lord?â€
For close to a decade, she and her late husband Alfred Malinga, a police constable, had been using local herbs to treat what they thought was syphillis.
But when her husbandâ€™s nails started rotting; the skin changing colour and developing a gooey rash, Nakitende took him to hospital. That was April 2009.
The two had lived together for 16 years with plans to marry legally.
An HIV test showed that the virus had â€˜eaten upâ€™ a big proportion of Malingaâ€™s white blood cells. The anti-retroviral drugs administered over the subsequent four months did not help.
On September 8, 2009 at a health centre in Mukono, the ailing Malinga asked the nurse to call in his wife who was six months pregnant with their ninth child.
â€œHe held my hand onto his chest and asked me to feel his heartbeat dwindle.
With tears running down my cheeks, I slipped into his deathbed beside him and put my arms around him, just when he whispered, â€˜take good care of my childrenâ€™, and went silent,â€ Nakitende recalls.
Now, four months since Nakitende found out that her children were HIV-positive, the sick, helpless mother, is not sure what to feed them on. She is jobless, yet her husband died broke.
This is a case of HIV/AIDS amidst abject poverty. And this poverty threatens to claim their lives even before AIDS does.
If it turns out that the other three children are also HIV-positive (God forbid), it will be a family of 10, waiting to die if they are not helped.
Nakitende and her children live in a dilapidated shack on the low lying slopes of Mirembe hill. They moved here just days before Malinga breathed his last, having been evicted from a rental in the neighbourhood for non-payment.
All the money was going towards Malingaâ€™s treatment. Malinga had saved sh2m from his meagre income as a police constable and bought this small plot of land.
He and Nakitende had planned to rear pigs and chicken for commercial purposes in case they got start-up capital in the future.
Supported by mud walls on one end and dry banana leaves on another, the wobbly shack looks like it will collapse any time.
Children going to schools in the neighbourhood call Nakitendeâ€™s children â€œkids from a piggery.â€
The shack does not have a door. Nakitende says dogs, monkeys, snakes and other wild animals are a common sight in the shack. By Godâ€™s grace, they have never hurt any of her children.
In what she turns into a joke, she cites an incident when she got back from the garden and found her two-year-old baby feeding all the potatoes they had kept for lunch to a monkey. â€œThat day we went without food.â€
The partly grass-thatched roof leaks. When it rains, it gets water-logged, becoming a breeding ground for mosquitoes, exposing the children to malaria.
On this visit, only the four little ones, aged between four months and seven years, were at home.
The other five, aged between nine and 15, had gone out to run errands around the village so they could earn some money to buy food for the family. When the children are unsuccessful, the family eats boiled leaves, or goes days without food.
â€œWe used to beg from neighbours, but they have also got fed up of us,â€ Nakitende says, adding that she cannot wait for the maize she recently planted to yield.
At this point, Nakitende is overcome by emotion and suddenly stops talking. The hardened faÃ§ade is betrayed by tears rushing down her cheeks.
And although I can feel her pain, I do not know what to do, so I just look on and wait for her to come round. After about three minutes, a smile that seems to come from far, flits across her face. It seems some really fond memories are going through her mind.
â€œThere were days I was so beautiful and every guy at school wanted a piece of me,â€ she recalls. â€œBut look how worn out I am now. I doubt anyone I went to school with recognises me.â€
Born in Kisozi Buddo, Wakiso district, Nakitende is the last-born of the late Priest Erasto Mukiibi and Victoria Namutebiâ€™s 14 children, eight of whom are alive.
She went to Buddo Secondary School, where she completed her Oâ€™level in 1993. She could not continue because her parents could not afford her school fees. She did not even pick up her exam results because she still owed the school fees balances.
It was while she was at home that she met the handsome Malinga, who was a guard at Kingâ€™s College Budo.
â€œIt was love at first sight. I started sneaking from home to go see him. When he was posted elsewhere, I left with him, and we started our journey that involved transfers to different parts of the country.â€
Nakitende suspects it was when Malinga was posted to Nebbi that he contracted HIV/AIDS. â€œI refused to go to Nebbi because of the insurgency there.
Maybe he got the virus during the two months he was alone in Nebbi,â€ she suspects, adding: â€œBut I forgave him, he was a nice man.
He never mistreated me or showed unfaithfulness. I am sure that one-off was the chink in the armour, and I sometimes blame myself for it because I left him lonely.â€
Now, all Nakitende has turned to for help is God. A born-again Christian, Nakitende, who attends the neighbouring Zion Church, says something happens when she prays.
â€œLike last night when I had nothing to give the children, I prayed two hours for a miracle and here you are,â€ she says to me. â€œThis money you have given us, though you call it little, will take us for some days, and hopefully, the story youâ€™re going to write will turn up a Good Samaritan.â€
She says her churchâ€™s pastor, David Musoke, has helped her with food, as well as giving her lots of spiritual uplifting.
She is now on anti-retroviral therapy.
Nakitendeâ€™s circumstances might not be so bleak if her sister-in-law, a police officer, was not trying to dash her last hope.
Nakitende claims the sister-in-law (name withheld) confiscated the deceasedâ€™s death certificate when Nakitende refused to give her Malingaâ€™s sofas; the familyâ€™s only admirable belonging.
The widow had hoped the certificate would help her process compensation funds from Uganda Police, accruing from Malingaâ€™s long time service in the force.
Attempts to reach the sister-in-law were futile, as her phone was off.
The International Justice Mission (IJM), which Nakitende says took down her details more than five months ago, has not come through yet.
Sam Sserunjogi, an IJM investigator on the case, says there are still some technicalities they need to look into in order to proceed.
Nakitende does not know where help will come from. Her mother is too senile to help, yet other relatives, she says, â€œdonâ€™t want to know.â€
She had seven goats she would have sold off to start up, but when the goats broke their leashes, strayed and destroyed someoneâ€™s crops, they were poisoned.
As we conclude, Nakitende says a prayer to send me off on a journey of about 35km back to Kampala, before she starts peeling sweet potatoes. And while she is at it, the four children around, some emaciated, huddle around her â€” all hungry and waiting for the food.
I cannot help but wonder what will happen to these children should Nakitende pass away.
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HIV-positive mum, 9 children hang onto life by a thread