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The only roaring trade is coffin making

Guest contributor to this blog for the next few days is Concern’s Lyndall Stein, who has just returned from a trip to Uganda:

I was with Charles, an energetic young Ugandan who works for SIPA – one of Concern’s partners in Rakai. Four dusty hours from Kampala we travelled across the equator into a lush and green area dotted by lakes. Rakai had been the first HIV and AIDS “hotspot”. The area has been devastated by the impact of HIV in the 80s and 90s. So many had died; there are many ghost villages, and hundreds of thousands of orphans. The only roaring trade is coffin making.

This area was studied by doctors, anthropologists, epidemiologists, psychologists, development workers, all trying to get answers – solutions to this horrendous cycle of loss and pain. Traumatised children, infected babies, sick teachers, farmers, dead mothers, heartbroken fathers, sisters, brothers – so many lost. A horrible reversal of roles, as children nursed mothers and fathers, became parents to even smaller children, all untrained, inexperienced, frightened, sick and hungry.

I remembered the sad image that Jacqueline, an amazing Ugandan HIV activist shared with me. She described to me a classroom photo – and those that were now missing. No “Friends Reunited” for Jacqueline, most of her classmates were dead; HIV and AIDS had killed them.

I asked Charles did he remember his school photo? He gave a thoughtful smile, “I am from a rural village in Rakai, we did not have a class photo, but you know we had a football team when I was 18. Now there are only two of us left”.

I asked him how he survived. He thought for a moment, and said “Well I had a teacher who gave me some information, so I understood the risks. One day I was helping my brother organise a village disco, he was older than me and I saw what some of those boys got up to. I realised that I had to be careful and protect myself. I had to take responsibility”. Charles is still taking responsibility, not only for himself, but also for his people. A survivor at 33.

By the side of Lake Kachera in Lweiliba village we met the community group he was working with. The group is called Asaika Obulamu, they were being helped with fishing nets and boats to help them earn money so they can afford the transport to the clinic 40 kilometres away. The group also helps them eat better in order to withstand the side-effects of the treatments. The positive results of this were very clear.

For instance, Pete Mutagubya, a big strapping fellow, told us how his weight had dropped to 25kg. He is now 77kg – the result of starting treatments and the extra food. Cecilia Nabulya tested positive in 1994, but since her food supply has improved she has not suffered so much from the difficult side effects of her treatments. Alice Nansamba, the determined Vice Chair of the group, explained how she was so sick all her hair fell out. It has all grown back since she went on treatments; the extra fish has made her strong.

In Lyndall’s next instalment, she talks more about her time with Charles, and about the hope encapsulated in the phrase “Health as a human rght”.