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.
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.