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Battling with HIV on the Rwenzoris

By Vision Reporter

Added 4th April 2005 03:00 AM

THE Samusenge stream beats on small rocks as it snakes its way from the Rwenzori Mountains through Silvano Kaija’s compound. Greenery follows the bubbling stream. Except for the mountaintops roofed with white clouds, the dark village earth carries breathtakingly green grass, trees and banana plant

THE Samusenge stream beats on small rocks as it snakes its way from the Rwenzori Mountains through Silvano Kaija’s compound. Greenery follows the bubbling stream. Except for the mountaintops roofed with white clouds, the dark village earth carries breathtakingly green grass, trees and banana plant

By Harriette Onyalla

THE Samusenge stream beats on small rocks as it snakes its way from the Rwenzori Mountains through Silvano Kaija’s compound. Greenery follows the bubbling stream. Except for the mountaintops roofed with white clouds, the dark village earth carries breathtakingly green grass, trees and banana plantations.

Three children wearing stained but clean oversize blouses walk past Kaija and his second wife Teopista Nyangoma. Kaija, sitting on a rock in front of his mud wattle house greets them in Rutoro.

As the children disappear under a shrub, the couple continue sitting in silent companionship. But soon, a woman yells from the next compound.

“Didn’t I tell you not to use that route? Those people are sick. Do you want to die? Let me get a stick,” she shouts.
Kaija and his wife know their neighbour is referring to them, but not a muscle on their faces twitches.

Twenty three years ago, Nyangoma was married off to Kaija. They settled on the slopes of the Rwenzori in Busoma village, Bukuuku sub-county, Kabarole district. She was only 14 years old.
After mothering eight children, her health has made a turn for the worse. Nyangoma believes she has HIV/AIDS although she hasn’t had a test.

“I fall sick almost every month. Last year, I failed to dig, I was always sick. In June, I went to Fort Portal Referral Hospital, but they didn’t tell me anything. Then I went to Kazingo Health centre and requested for an HIV test. The day I was to go back, I was very sick. I couldn’t walk back there and I had no transport money,” she says.

Now 37 years old, Nyangoma says after her husband begun falling sick five months ago, they concluded they were HIV positive.

“It takes time to talk about it. But at least we are not pointing fingers. After all, even if you do not have AIDS, you can die,” Kaija says, his face showing strain from illness.

He realises the need for his two wives and himself to go for an HIV test, but says since he began falling sick, money has eluded him. “I used to break rocks and sell at sh30,000 per lorry, I can’t do that now. We can’t sell the little matooke we have. It is the children who now dig for the family. I don’t know how to get money to transport my wives to hospital. We need this test,” Kaija says.
Nyangoma and her husband is just one couple among many in Bukuuku sub-county that have not tested for HIV but believe they have AIDS.

“We have a big problem. Of every 20 households, 15 have someone living with HIV/AIDS. Many sick people don’t come out of their homes for fear of being laughed at,” Gertrude Kalyatha says.
Kalyatha is a member of Kanyamurwa Women’s Association, which hosts a Reflect Circle in Karago village. Reflect Circles are an initiative of a local Community Based Organisation Literacy and Empowerment (L&E), a partner of ActionAid Uganda.

Grace Williams Maiso, L&E’s Executive Director says reflect Circles are a participatory Information communication and Technology (ICT) project being piloted in marginalised communities in Uganda, Burundi and India.

“Reflect Circles meet every Thursday and Saturday to discuss health, education, agriculture, domestic violence and other issues,” Maiso says.
However, Kalyatha says there is little knowledge about the way HIV/AIDS is transmitted so many patients are neglected because caregivers fear getting infected.

Kalyatha says more women than men are infected by the rampant HIV/AIDS since many men have more than one wife.

Statistics at the sub-county headquarters estimate out of a population of 2,200, between 30% and 40% of the adults are infected with HIV/AIDS.

Hospital records show 189 of these have gone for HIV tests. Of these, 60 are widows struggling so that when death knocks, their households can cope with life without them.

Joweria Asaba is one of them. She says, “I didn’t suspect my husband died of AIDS. He was sick for a short time. After, I was admitted in hospital because of chest complications for three months. I was discharged, but admitted again because of malaria. I was frustrated. Medication couldn’t keep sickness at bay.”

Asaba sits on a sofa chair in her sitting room. It is 5:00pm, but darkness is fast engulfing the place. Her 10-year-old daughter Grace rushes in to inform her that she has brought the last cabbages home from the garden.

Asaba looks at her daughter, her face beams with pride. She tells her to light a tadooba (a makeshift lamp)and continues, “I asked the doctor why. He explained things about malarial resistance, but advised me to take an HIV test.

“When I found I was positive, I didn’t feel like dying. I’ve tested twice. Knowing has equipped me to manage life and plan for my children.”

Her last-born Grace is in primary six while her eldest girl is married. The second born, a boy dropped out of school last year due to lack of school fees.

“I’m working hard, but also praying when I succumb to death, I will have found someone to pay Grace’s school fees, she’s a bright girl,” she says.

Asaba’s openness came after a great struggle. “It wasn’t easy telling people I’m sick. One day, it came up in our Reflect Circle, we were discussing about missing meetings due to sickness,” she says.

Agnes Kabaikya, L&E’s Communication Manager says awareness is making the community become more open about AIDS. More people he says are joining Reflect Circles to get information.
“If they bring AIDS orphans to register, then they are acknowledging that the child’s parent died of AIDS. That’s not easy. Most families prefer saying their relative was bewitched. The 25 Reflect Circles have registered 220 AIDS orphans,” she says.

Kabaikya doubts whether culture has played a role in the people affected by HIV/AIDS. “There were cultures like giving wives to a visitor to show hospitality or fathers having sex with daughters-in-law. “Those cultures no longer exist. With education and dynamism of culture, things changed,” she says.

Kabaikya says they have an ICT centre that sources information. And Reflect Circles have solar powered radios. Newspapers are first translated into Rutoro or Rukonzo then pinned on notice boards.

She says more people flocked to circles recently after they translated a Ministry of Health notice Anti retroviral drugs (ARVs) are now available free.

“When people got information on free ARVs at Fort Portal hospital and Buhinga health centre on circle notice boards, the attendance doubled from between 30-40 to over 60. Those opening up about their HIV status also increased,” she says.
And so, a war rages on, on the steep slopes of the Rwenzori Mountains. In spite of being HIV positive, people are fighting to live to see their children become independent adults.

But Asaba says, “If I ask God to allow me see my grandchildren, I will be cheating, if I ask him to allow me see Grace through school, I think I will be asking too much. But if he can help her finish school when I’m not there...” tears blind her, she can’t go on. She fumbles for the edge of her brown lesu, wipes her eyes and smiles sadly. Life eh, life um!

Battling with HIV on the Rwenzoris

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