Let’s Talk About HIV

Every foreigner I met in Uganda in 2008 was there for some sort of volunteer work. I went to volunteer with another girl from Milwaukee, and we joined forces with two other women. All of us were twenty something Americans, and our group had a little bit of everything.

Sarah and I both had dreadlocks, though she was mixed. Stephanie, who came to do medical work, was the epitome of a white girl, with blonde hair and blue eyes. Sabrina was a southern born Mz Thang, as black as Ugandans. Her focus in Uganda was AIDS awareness.

We all had gotten along incredibly well, bonding over the situations where the cultural divide between America and Uganda really united who we were, despite our inter-continental differences.

For example, while visiting a rural village, we’d walked around with a retired school teacher, John Sampala. He took us through his crops of beans and sugar cane, past the pasture where goats and cows munched on grass, and on to the neighborhood watering hole; a murky pit full of stagnate water. Along the way, John was pointing out different plants to us. Frank, a Ugandan volunteer who worked with my organization, was walking with us. This was one conversation between Frank and Stephanie.

Frank- “Do you like cock?”

Stephanie- (pausing to think) “Um.. You mean like a male chicken?”

Frank- “NO! Cock! It’s a plant!”

Stephanie- “Um… Is it like a tuber?”

Frank- “NO! We use it to spice tea.” Stephanie- “Uh, I don’t think that we have that in America.”

(They approached John, who was holding a football shaped pod that was cracked open, exposing little white gooey lumps.)

Frank- (pointing) “See? Cock!”

Stephanie- “Yeah, we don’t have that in America.”

John- “Yes you do. It’s cocoa.”

These kinds of situations united us in humor. We needed to lean on our humor, because if we didn’t laugh sometimes, we’d feel like crying constantly.


Along that same walk, we also saw a man who had recently lost his wife to AIDS, and another man who stood in front of his shabby lean-to of a home, smiled, and showed us his lesions.

Though our volunteering had separate focuses, we all worked together. So the three of us joined Sabrina as she spoke at a school in Kasawo called Seat of Wisdom. She organized an AIDS talk, and it was amazing to see the transformation in her, from edgy funny Sabrina to a powerful leader.

The four of us were seated in a small, stuffy building. It was divided by a half-wall to make two classrooms, though we could hear the other teacher’s voice drifting over the gap by the ceiling.  The desks on our side were arranged in a square with us foreigners on one edge, on display, as usual.

Father John spoke to the children first. He had taken over Seat of Wisdom when the attendance was dwindling, and turned the student population around to over 700 students in just a few years. He had a huge smile, and total respect from all his students. He introduced Sabrina, and she stepped into the middle and took over the class. She was the daughter of two teachers, and it showed.

First, she made the kids repeat after her, singing a rendition of Salt n’ Peppa’s early 90’s hit, “Let’s talk about sex.” She changed the words to, “Let’s talk about H.I.V. Let’s talk about you and me…” Clapping and singing along, the students got revved up. She maintained her spunky attitude too, calling out to the ‘ladies’ or ‘fellas’ in the room.

For an hour or so, she spun out the history of HIV, what the abbreviation means (human immunodeficiency virus), how it spreads, and how it leads to AIDS. The students had questions all throughout her lecture (“Can mosquitoes spread HIV?” “Are drugs ever laced with HIV?” “How is it possible for a husband to have HIV, but not his wife?”).

After a while, she explained how Uganda had set up the ABC model in the early 90’s that cut back significantly on the spread of HIV. A= abstinence (the surest way to prevent infection), B= be faithful (to your spouse/ partner if you are sexually active), and C= use a condom (if you are going to be sexually active). What she didn’t tell the students was that this model was lost after a presidential change. The new president had a Christian wife who thought that the “C” encouraged premarital sex. After that, the message in Uganda was ABSTAIN! ABSTAIN! Across the schoolyards, we saw proof of this message. There were signs everywhere that said things like, ‘AIDS are irreversible,’ and ‘Say no to bad touches.’

After Sabrina ran through her lecture, Father John came back into the room. He was not happy with the word “condom” written on the board. He gently bantered with Sabrina, as a way to publicly remind the children that sex leads to HIV, and condoms are a pointless thing to rely on. “If you put on padding while riding a bike, will it stop you from falling?” He asked, and the children laughed. It was sad in a way, watching Sabrina retreat in the argument. We were, after all, guests under Father John’s roof, and he believed that condoms implied sex; something immoral. But it just proved to me how much more complex the fight is when strict religious rules and structures have to battle against the lust of teenage hormones.

Aside from AIDS situation, I also became increasingly aware of another serious problem in Uganda: malaria. Malaria takes so many lives in Africa every year. 1 in 4 mosquitoes carry the disease, and although I took my medication nightly (and woah, did Malerone give me some crazy dreams…), the locals were not so fortunate. Most people seemed to get malaria about twice a year, and if they could afford it, they’d take medication to be rid of it in a few days. If not, they live with it, and often die from it.

A cousin of the family we stayed with came out dancing with us one weekend. He was far less upbeat than he’d been when we met him the week before. I asked him why he was so mellow. “I am on antibiotics for malaria,” he said. “I should feel better in a few days.” This sickness and others were all around.

Speaking of sickness’… I caved. I had seen so many sad, sad people on the dirty streets of Kampala, and it made me ache to walk past their limp, upturned hands. So many people were half covered in blankets, had pencil thin legs crossed in front of them, or half- limbs, and their faces looked as beautiful as everyone else in Uganda- ageless, smooth and dark. So one day I exchanged my dollars for coins, and dropped everything I had into every hand I passed. I felt great that day, but the following day, I saw all the people in the same locations, waiting with their hands out. There are sometimes just too many people to help.

(written in 2008)



Filed under Africa, Uganda

2 responses to “Let’s Talk About HIV

  1. Charlie

    Fr. John was right, and so was the Holy Father when he went to Africa in 2009.

    Basically, it’s the “A” and “B” that was effective in Uganda.

    Countries that emphasized “C” did not see similar results. From the abstract of a report published in the Journal Science (http://bit.ly/fDNIlV):

    “Despite limited resources, Uganda has shown a 70% decline in HIV prevalence since the early 1990s, linked to a 60% reduction in casual sex. The response in Uganda appears to be distinctively associated with communication about acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) through social networks. Despite substantial condom use and promotion of biomedical approaches, other African countries have shown neither similar behavioral responses nor HIV prevalence declines of the same scale. “

  2. “Free antiretroviral drugs have been available in Uganda since 2004. It is thought that the introduction of HIV drugs may have led to complacency about HIV as AIDS is no longer an immediate death sentence. Many experts have also speculated that Uganda’s shift in prevention policy away from ABC towards US-backed abstinence-only programmes may also be responsible for an increase in risky behaviour, as comprehensive sex education and condom promotion are no longer mainstream.”


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