Are we “Getting to Zero”?: The HIV/AIDS blame game in Uganda

30 11 2013

I was 7 years old when I lost my aunt. Prior to her death there was a rumor going around in the family that she was HIV positive. Most of these rumors were stigmatizing because everyone looked at an HIV victim as if they were dying tomorrow.  In the mid 90s the term HIV/AIDS was not popular. People preferred to use the local word “siliimu” which means slim. The term siliimu was used because of the way HIV turned victims into walking skeletons – literally.

But I guess the stigmatization was not as humiliating as the pain the patients went through in their final days of life. Many would be bed ridden for days/ months. Some (un)lucky ones would even stay ill on their death beds for years.

Before my aunt died she was ill for very many weeks. At the time all HIV patients received counseling services and a very specific kind of yellow corn flour from TASO. Apparently the yellow corn flour was rich in nutrients to help victims live longer.  Patients also got some medications such as Septrine and painkillers. At the time the ARVs were not accessible/ available.

In the beginning people welcomed TASO and the HIV patients were willing to go for services because TASO promised all patients confidentiality. This did not last long, people started spreading rumors “did you know, I found this person at TASO, they must be HIV positive”.

Like many other patients my aunt lived in denial. She never agreed to an HIV test even though my mom persuaded her to test saying that this is the only way she would get medication.

There was little knowledge and information about HIV, people knew that HIV had no cure and they knew that a patient would develop diarrhea, grow slim and eventually die. Not much was known about how its spreads, how to take care of patients extra. So mere suspecting that one is HIV positive meant that they would be stigmatized for the rest of their life.

The Baganda have an interesting culture where some one would public declare the cause of death at your funeral. When an HIV patient died normally small talks would go around during the funeral – “he/she died of siliimu”.

When I was 10 years old I lost my most favorite teacher ever. Her death was rather unusual, she was ill for only 2 or 3 days. She died of a headache but rumor had it that she had AIDS.

Eventually there were dozens of death recorded and all were attributed to HIV. Some of these deaths were very painful to my family and I because the people were very close to us.

Fast forward:

Today, HIV/AIDS continues to spread and kill thousands in Uganda. The stigma has significantly reduced. I think the stigma has reduced because access to ARVs has improved in the country, which means that people living with HIV/AIDS can live longer.

On November 3rd the Prime Minister of Uganda Amama Mbabazi cited increased access to antiretroviral (ARV) drugs as one of the causes for disheartening complacency that has seen a spike in new HIV infections countrywide.

When the Prime Minister makes such remarks I wonder whether the government’s commitment to “Get to Zero” (zero new infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related death) still stands. Mbabazi might have a point but his statement is rather demeaning to the many HIV/AIDS patients and stakeholders who are making sure that patients get access to the much needed ARVs.

One the major weaknesses in the fight against HIV/AIDS is government failure to integrate sexual and reproductive health education into the national syllabi right from primary to advanced levels of education. There is a lot of secrecy when it comes to sex. Many young boys and girls who are sexually active resort to local tabloids. Newspapers, television and Internet for those who have access to educate themselves about sex and reproductive health.

But what does this mean for many rural youth who drop out of school, don’t have access to this information? Well, of course this means that they are more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. For me this feels like we are taking 1-step forward and 2 steps backward in the fight against HIV.

Uganda was once a champion on the African continent in the fight against HIV. Today, statistics show that many African countries are dealing with the epidemic much better than us. What happened? Perhaps our leaders got so excited because their initial efforts registered a lot of success and since they became complacent?

Is this a time to play the blame game? Perhaps NOT! That’s why I am not going to talk about the woes in the maternal health sector and government’s failure to prioritize health in the national budget.

Tomorrow is the International World AIDS Day. For me this day brings back a lot of painful memories but most importantly it reminds me that “Getting to Zero” is a shared responsibility. It is going to require (renewed) commitment, less blaming and more doing. And I hope that our government will actually champion this struggle and make it a priority.

“The Baganda should test war”: Prayer of a private guard

28 11 2013

“Good morning sir, sir I was listening to the radio. These Baganda are saying that if Lukwago is impeached they are going to start a war against the government. I want a war to come to Buganda. These Baganda should test it. They think they can fight. They have never seen a war “ the guard continued.

Yesterday, the guard at my house engaged me in a 20 minutes conversation or should I say story since he did all the talking. I made a few comments here and there but mostly listening to him as he calmly poured out his anger and frustration.

This guard is the most respectful guard I have ever seen. Actually one of the most respectful Ugandans I have ever met. Until yesterday morning I couldn’t believe that this man (guard) could hold a grudge against anyone. He works for a private security company.

“Sir, I tested the war in Teso. A group of 20 plus rebels could rape your sister, wife or even mother right in front of you. And you could do nothing or you would die. Most of the women would die. I watched as relatives were slaughtered like goats. My father was a chief so he asked government to give us support and we got a lot of support. Now these Baganda are here saying they want to start a war. Let them start it. I will be on the side of the government and I will show them” the guard lamented.

I could feel the pain in his voice so to this I said, well, war is terrible. I was already thinking I am running late. I don’t know why I am listening to this conversation but I am still interested in knowing why he hates the Baganda so much.

“These Baganda are bad people. My landlady is a Muganda. A few months ago she took me to jail. I have two room at her house. One is my shop the other is my bedroom. One day she came to my shop and said, you are just a guard, how can you own a shop? Where do you get all this money? She tried to force her way in to my shop but I couldn’t let her because she was making all these allegations calling me a thief. So I pushed her out and then she tried to fight me. I didn’t know that was tricking me to beat her. I beat her seriously. That’s how I ended up in jail….” he said.

“But sir, can you imagine that this same woman also tried to trick me into marrying her daughter. She wanted me to kick my wife out so I could marry her daughter. Her daughter was even pregnant for another man. I refused! These Baganda are just thieves. They love money too much. I hate them! ” he continued.

At this point I was wondering whether he actually knows that I am a Muganda. My guess is no because he was speaking without holding back.

“Sir, these Baganda should just test war, I pray. Once they test like this, they will never open their mouth again. They are here celebrating Namugongo. That is nothing. Let me leave you so you can go to work sir. ” this time his eyes looked watery.

On my way to work I reflected on his story. I kept asking myself, how did we get to this point? Everything seems to rotate around our tribes now.

Assuming that he didn’t know that I am a Muganda, I chose not to reveal. I wasn’t sure whether this was necessary or even helpful in this situation.

I think the Baganda have “tested” some wars – Obote exiled Sir Edward Mutesa in 1966. Whether they have fought a war is a question for another day. My mom has told me some stories of the 1985 violence and the regimes before that.

Whether this guard was aware of this history, I dont know.

Even though I totally respect this guard’s opinions and was deeply touched by his story, I don’t think he is right to declare a war against the Baganda. Call me selfish but a war based on tribal segregation can get really filthy. I know so because I saw traumatizing pictures of the Rwanda genocide and the post-election violence in Kenya.

KCCA Saga: Whose war is it? Museveni Vs. Lord Mayor Vs. Jennifer Musisi

23 11 2013

I will never forget the day Kampala took to the ballot to vote the mayor of the city. After the long heated campaigns the day had come for the people to decide. There were two iconic figures in the race. Elias Lukwago – an influential member of opposition and Peter Sematimba a businessman, pastor and once a DJ who came on the NRM ticket.

What made the Mayoral contest so exciting was that it came only days after the presidential election, which the opposition insisted, had been rigged. So the opposition members set a new mission – to make it impossible for the NRM to rig the mayoral elections.

At 8Am word had started going around that the vote had been rigged in favor of  the NRM candidate. This was almost unbelievable because the polling stations were not supposed to open until 9Am. However at 8Am the ballots were almost full at many of the polling stations around the city.

Kampala mayoral poll riddled with vote rigging – YouTube

Kampala mayoral vote chaos – YouTube

I suppose NRM had no better way to show how much they loved to have one of their own to head or should I say rule Kampala city. This is probably the most desperate and stupid move NRM has ever made to gain control because in the aftermath Lukwago won the disputed contest with landslide victory.

The ballot was lost but NRM was not about to lose the fight! President Museveni appointed an executive director for the Kampala City Council Authority. Jennifer Musisi became the first Executive Director of this city.

Perhaps Museveni was not concerned about the consequences of his actions but when he appointed Jennifer he wedged a gap in the Kampala City Council Authority creating stiff competition between the Mayor and the Executive Director of Kampala where each is always working to win the people’s support.

Opposition members say that this was part of Museveni’s long-term plan – to control Kampala city. Did I mention that on top of the Lord Mayor and the Executive Director, President Museveni also appointed Frank Tumwebaze, the Minister of Kampala! Ironic. Right?

The difference between Lukwago and Jennifer is the nature of tactics and resources they use to achieve their objectives. Some people say that Lukwago is using traditional tactics – using his position to win the favour and support of market vendors and taxi drivers. Jennifer on the other hand is using all the resources available at her disposal to appeal to the urban elite who want clean road and less congestion in the city.

I must say that I am quite impressed at how much Jennifer Musisi has accomplished in such a short time. But then again this is her job. And her master appointed her so she can impress people like me. However one thing that I really don’t understand is what does Jennifer’s master want in return? What is his motive? I know he wants something.

My friends say that I should stop criticizing and show appreciation for the things that have been well done. Well, naturally I question a lot.

We live in the world where the devil will give you all the riches you need and yet the same devil will strip you naked, insult you in public and eventually take back everything that belongs to him. So, I question everything, everyone.

I am not saying that the developments changing Kampala’s face for the better are actually a devil’s works but I am certain these developments go beyond political interests. Again whether these are personal interests I wouldn’t know (yet).

To many Ugandans, Kampala is the capital but to politician Kampala is a springboard to power. So, technically if the people of Kampala like you, you can (almost) lead anywhere in this country. Why? Because the people of Kampala are hard to please! But these same people also fall for the smallest of things.

The Lord Mayor of Kampala has been in jail twice in the past week alone. According to a recent KCCA tribunal report, the Lord Mayor was found guilty of abuse of office, incompetence and misconduct. The Mayor was arrested as he attempted to leave his home. Uganda Police suspected that he was planning to organize a rally near Kiseka market, downtown Kampala to brief people about the report, which the mayor maintains is nothing, but blackmail. Many people have predicted that this is the end of Lukwago’s reign.

But Lukwago still claims his position and insists that the people of Kampala voted him into office and that only the voter can determine his fate.

Kampala has become a battleground. The real victims of the fight are the people of Kampala and yet this virtual war seems to be far from over. The increasing fights in the Kampala City Council Authority seem to be between the Lord Mayor Elias Lukwago and the Executive Director, Jennifer Musisi but there seems to be more than what meets the eye. President Museveni has been highly implicated in the fight even though he insists that he is not involved.

One question remains, what does the fall of Lukwago mean to the people of Kampala? Whose win is it? The people? Jennifer Musisi? Or Museveni?

Is it possible that after losing the ballot, NRM is trying to push its luck to control the capital forcefully? Do the people of Kampala have a say in this?

Perhaps I am just being cynical (just like the Lord Mayor) but looking at the events that have unfolded since Lukwago came to office I have a strong feeling that this fight is not about to end.

I am keen to see how this will end.

KCCA votes on Monday to kick out Lukwago

Simon Kaheru has some interesting commentary here: out with lukwago; you could be next