A beaming 60 year old Hellen Candiru tells the story of how she bought a goat in preparation for her funeral in 1992 almost five years after she had acquired HIV.

“When you came to the hospital, the counselors would tell you to go to a church teacher and prepare your ways before God; it wasn’t an easy feeling and one would often be left thinking about suicide” Candiru narrates.

But more traumatising was the stigma associated with the infection, slim bodies of people wasting to death, the societal stereotypes of grading people with HIV as those sexually immoral and a lack of medicines to suppress the virus meant an infected person found their way to the grave in the shortest time possible.

Based on the above reasons, it wasn’t surprising that Candiru would finally confirm her status in 1996 nearly a decade after infection, she acknowledges being pushed to test by a relentless friend.

Ms Dona Aseru also living positively fondly remembers the struggles of coming openly to declare her status in 1994.

“The first time I stepped openly at Arua police grounds, many people kept talking about me because they saw how my husband had died and kept saying she is the next; but that day I stood in the open to tell people that I am living with HIV but when I die is not upon myself” Ms Aseru narrates her ordeal.

Three decades of positive living, the reasons behind Candiru’s smile and Dona’s confidence were explainable, the trends had drastically changed.

However, the changed trends are constantly showing cracks and hearing someone equate HIV to Malaria for these group who had come from a traumatising experience in the past is simply unacceptable.

“I know HIV yesterday and HIV today is different majorly because if you look at it physically, the slim which I went through but I was lucky to bounce back and build resilience and look healthy again is no more”

“We have come a long way and had different successes but now many of the successes have been under cut because many people have said HIV is just malaria and yet it is not, Malaria is curable but HIV is not” Dona cautions.

The exhibition of HIV history in Uganda

The academy for health innovations within Infectious diseases institute (IDI) has set an exhibition to tell the stories of the history of HIV over the last 30 years in the country.

The mobile exhibitions open to the public will move to Arua town (5th to 31st March), Hoima, Rakai, Moroto, Wakiso and finally Kampala.

“In this HIV prevention journey, a lot has changed, the way we used to do social behaviour communication is different right now, for instance in the earlier years we used to have a picture of a person with slim but now you have people with smiling faces and emphasizing that it’s not a death sentence anymore” Says Ms Flavia Lubega, the project manager history of HIV exhibition.

Ms Lubega says the exhibition is aimed at helping the youth appreciate the journey in the HIV/AIDS fight.

Dr Twaha Mahaba, the regional program manager (IDI), says the exhibition will address complacency which in part had been created due to ignorance of the past.

“We have been able to get some stories of someone telling you that the HIV of the present is not as strong as that of the past and we relate it to the fact that people have not been able to see the picture of HIV”

“We believe with this exhibition, it brings an opportunity to be listened to and ask and see because there are videos and pictures and with this kind of information we believe the youth can have a behavioural change”, Dr Mahaba says.

Dr MahabaDr Mahaba flanked by Dr Wadria Ronald speaking to the press.

Ms Dona says the exhibition adds a more innovative means to fighting the scourge.

“We have done a lot of things but we know that HIV is dynamic and if you do the same things the same way, you will not expect to get a different result”

“So if they see the stories we have put in the exhibition, they should be able to appreciate how far we have come and if we have been relaxing, then we should be challenged to bounce back with new innovations and do something better”, she says.

The fight goes on

For those that have lived through the times like Mr Jack Kokole, the chairman of people living with HIV/AIDS in Arua, the strides made in the HIV fight are remarkable.

“In the early days, when the anthem by Philly Lutaya would play, there would only be tears but the picture has changed now, this shows the commitment of Ugandans to wipe out HIV in the country” Kokole says.

He is quick to caution that the pace in the fight must be accelerated if this ultimate goal is to be achieved.

Dr Pontious Apangu, Arua municipal medical officer says the urban areas need to step up their efforts due to a higher infection burden.

He warns that the HIV/AIDS fight must be sustained despite new emerging and more dangerous infections across the globe like the Corona Virus.

As different people are taken through the exhibition room at the Catholic centre in Arua town, one is made to appreciate how far the country has come.

But most importantly the activists championing the cause against HIV want to make it clear that the strides made must not be used as a tool for complacency.

Rev Fr Pius YobutaVisistors including Rev Fr Pius Yobuta of Christ the King parish are shown through the exhibition room.

 

The site of dilapidated houses, the lines on the gigantic bridge and the constantly looted equipment on the extensive Gulu route seen mostly during the dry spell after the covering bush has been burnt away, the inland port of Pakwach slowly obliterates in memory as west Nile regions railway station.

For those that lived in the era of a thriving train service in the country with the memories of the bulk of goods from Soroti, Tororo, Butiaba, Gulu and other towns as far as Malaba on the Kenyan border, the current state of affairs represents a drastic negative turn.

It’s only fair to note as well that the bulk of goods offloaded at the inland port did not only remain in west Nile but neighboring countries like democratic republic of Congo and Sudan benefited from these services.

The region too exported its produce; Cotton, Tobacco and on rather a smaller scale Sesame found its way to the rest of the world through the rail port of Pakwach.

For the local residents, the boom in economic activity led to employment opportunities and to them poverty was more a story being told about other places.

"The community enjoyed and people used not to cry of poverty, there was high purchasing power and there was intermarriage among the many tribes that in itself was a binding factor"  Mr Godfrey Oryek, the current estate assistant at Pakwach railway station recalls.

Mr Oryek still holds fond memories of the period of bloom as early as 1960’s when the then President Dr Apollo Milton Obote commissioned the Pakwach bridge line.

Fast forward to the turn of the new decade, the generation of the new millennium has been reduced to the sight of the first disappearing infrastructure, the hopes of the railway revival far in the horizon and with land encroachment reported to be high, the slim hopes of ever seeing a vibrant railway station at Pakwach could well disappear for good writes Geofrey Achora.

The beginning of collapse

Mr Michael Okumu, a former security employee of Uganda railways at Gulu station says the busy activities started dwindling in the early 1990’s and a total collapse in 1997 due to the insurgency meted by the Lord’s resistance Army (LRA).

Okumu who worked with the company for seven years beginning from 1983 says the insurgency dealt a huge blow to loads of people with many from Acholi opting to relocate to the now popular ‘Acholi Empire’ in Wenglai A village.

However as the attempts to restore peace in the troubled North continued, the government kept on changing its priorities in transport Infrastructure development.

“For me I entirely blame the government because with the restoration of peace, it was important for them to have the railway as part of the means of improving livelihood of the community but they never considered that” Mr Oryek notes.

 He speculates that the government laxity to restore the railway operations must have been prompted by the tarmacking of the Pakwach - Karuma road.

A goat grazesA goat grazes in one of the railways at Pakwach station.

Properties under threat of vandalism and theft.

The biggest current challenge the government of Uganda is likely to face in order to revive the Pakwach railway station is how to deal with threat of land encroachment by the community.

The station was allocated forty six acres of land to host its activities and provide room for future expansion but almost half of it, is settled by community and used for agriculture, officials have said.

"The occupants are mainly on the space allocated for the retired and deceased officers with the claim that they have nowhere to go and as such evicting them without court order is challenging " Mr Oryek says.

He says all the mark stones have been removed as another battle rages on between other institutions like schools that have established football pitches on the land without the authorisation of the station.

Pakwach town council has also been drawn in the encroachment row with their plans to establish a Lorry parking yard on a piece of land the railway company claims ownership of.

The massive theft of rail equipment is another setback towards any hopes of revival; rails are sold by unscrupulous people to scrap dealers, Areas in Nwoya district hosting the national park are major target for the thieves.

The houses have not been renovated and many have been deserted, the few staff and security people still occupying some of the houses are on a time bomb to say the least.

At the extreme east lies a huge idle store meant for goods on transit, although previously out for hire to companies and organizations, it’s all abandoned due to an unfavourable location.

The community have their say.

Many people across Pakwach share different views on the operations of the railway although largely in agreement that the same should be revived.

Mr Michael Okumu, a former employee of the corporation appeals to the government to replace the old rails with a standard gauge in order to boost tourism and trade in Pakwach due to its proximity to Democratic republic of Congo.

He says re- establishment of the railway would also ease the transport of relief and humanitarian supplies like food to the refugee settlements and other disaster areas.

Mr Godfrey Segirinya, the manager Pakwach cotton ginnery agrees with the idea of restabilising a new line due to massive destruction on the old line.

He says a lot of revenue had been lost due to the break down insisting that there is enough capacity to tap in varieties of commodities like the Atyak sugar factory in Amuru and tonnes of rice produced on large scale in Nwoya district if the railway were revamped.

However, Ms Bilania Avur 63, who saw the influx of goods in Pakwach during the hey days of the railways casts doubt on the government’s commitment to the cause.

"The government has been using the railway line revival ever since as political tool but many children haven't seen trains in their lives, this would be a great opportunity for the generation " she says.

Ms Bilania AvurMs Bilania Avur (R) with acollegue reconnected the memories of the trains stationing at Pakwach railway station from 1960s..

 

In May 2018, the increasing volume of traffic on the Obongi-Sinyanya route left the local leaders with no option other than request for a second ferry on the route.

At this stage, the thin staff operating the four-engine ferry with a capacity of 150 passengers and four trucks at a time were not only over stretched, but the increasing traffic exacerbated by the refugee activity in the area made the situation worse.

Indeed in the previous April traffic report of 2018, the 2.2m Euros,120 horse power ferry had carried 63,246 passengers, 42 buses, 936 Lorries and Trucks, 2,240 cars and pickups,2,714 motorcycles,2,782 bicycles and 616 animals.

However, whereas the ferry services across the river were being chocked due to overwhelming traffic, the local fish business was set for a boom.

Of course the request to have a second ferry has not been granted but the fish business has never declined to-date reports Marko Taibot

 The fish business

Ms Hanifa Driciru narrates having started her dry fish business with a paltry UGX4500 two years ago. In a quick change of fortunes, besides her savings, Driciru now operates a working capital of more than UGX 1million with which she buys fish depending on the need and the season.

She says before the ferry, seven sizeable fresh fish from the landing site would cost as low as UGX 2000 and the same dried amount at about UGX 4000.

Fast forward to 2020, the same amount of dry fish sells for more than UGX 20,000.

Ms HanifaMs Hanifa displays her fish for sale at Juba market. ALL PHOTOS BY MARKO TAIBOT.

For Ms Zaitun Ayikoru, the presence of the ferry to facilitate movement across the river has a direct correlation to the growth of her business.

More than nine years into this trade, Ayikoru and her colleagues have the luxury of selling the fish in their own locality as opposed to the long distances they used to travel before the ferry that usually came with associated losses.

Ayikoru says the previous main market for the fish used to be Yumbe town.

The Obongi ‘Juba’ market

The market at the landing site where the women sell the dry fish has been nicknamed Juba market, this they say simply because majority of their customers are passengers plying the Arua Koboko Juba route.

Driciru says passengers destined for Juba pay without complaints once told the price of the fish.

“They don’t have much time to negotiate but simply pull money and pay” a smiling Driciru speaks about her Juba customers.

Ayikoru says the market of the fish is dependent on whether the ferry is operational or not. She says her business of selling dry fish is easy and can be started with an amount as low as UGX 20,000.

The benefits of the business

Driciru who is a mother of four says she is able to pay school fees of her children despite only being in the business for a short time.

She narrates proudly paying the fees for a senior five student and others in primary six, four and one other still in a nursery school.

Ayikoru’s ordeal is no different, she says besides feeding her family well, she is able to meet expenses of rent and school fees.

Both women now want to see their children attain the highest level of education they can so that they can be independent in future.

The challenges

Driciru despite the business success rues the lack of support from her husband.

“If my husband could help me, I would have built a house already” she narrates.

Besides their family woes, the women have complained of the lack of shelter and toilet facilities. The only toilet constructed by Uganda national roads authority (UNRA) is far from their selling point.

They blamed the town council authorities for only being interested in collecting dues as opposed to improving services.

What government authorities say

Mr Said Makosa Sebbi, the town clerk Obongi town council says the local government has taken keen interest and is going to reorganize the Juba market at the landing site because of the increase of the amount of trade in the place.

He says the plans are underway to establish sanitary facilities and other facilities needed for them to effectively do their business.

The town clerk says despite the lack of direct support from the government, the women would soon be sensitized on how to access the women entrepreneurship fund to improve their capital base.

All in all, whether the leaders calling for a second ferry for Obongi were justified or not is one thing but the amount of business resulting from the increased traffic seems sufficient enough to guarantee a steady source of livelihood for the local women.

FishermenFishermen in a canoe on the river in Obongi.