How HIV- positive women in Kireka got smiles

They meet twice every week, on Tuesday and Thursday. At these meetings they always catch up on what’s happening in each other’s life, share the different skills of weaving the handicrafts they make for a living and discuss issues to do with their savings society, among other activities. They also always sing and dance around the conference hall, making for an ever exuberant gathering.

Observing them, there’s no way you will imagine that theirs are actually meetings of women living with HIV– not until they tell you so. And even after they have told you of their HIV status, you just won’t imagine how much gloom previously filled the life of every one of them.

You will only learn of that gloom when the women –ever willing narrators– begin to tell the story of the unspeakable misery which had to be flushed out of their lives to get them smiling again.
These are the women of Meeting Point International (MPI), an NGO in Kireka which is dedicated to supporting women living with HIV and their families to live positive lives. How these women living with HIV got back their smiles, and how those smiles have remained on the women’s faces, is a story this writer thinks the world should celebrate, learn from, support.

One woman’s humble initiative
The founder of MPI, Rose Busingye, narrates that it all goes back to 1992. When as a young woman just returned to Uganda from a three-year sojourn in Italy, she was shocked at how scores of poor women in her Acholi Quarters neighbourhood of Kireka were dehumanised by HIVAids before it killed them.

Busingye says she also noticed that her neighbourhood being one mostly populated by people from northern Uganda (hence the name Acholi Quarters), most of the women were actually victims of the LRA war which was then at its height. “Many of the women had only come to Kampala to flee the LRA insurgency, and were now faced with unemployment, lack of proper accommodation, broken families, post-war trauma, among other problems,” Busingye reminisces.

To do something about the situation, Busingye recalls reaching into her purse to draw her savings, then beginning to use her foreign contacts to find additional assistance. She registered Meeting Point International as an NGO and began looking out for the suffering HIV-Positive women to offer them a hand.

“Rose appeared out of the blue, going through the village in search of women who had HIV,” says Janet Nabirye who was one of the first women to join MPI. “She would register you and immediately start giving you free antiretroviral drugs every month. For many of us it was the first time we were getting access to the life-saving antiretroviral drugs we had hitherto only heard of, and it was a real chance at life.”

Beyond providing medication
Cathy Adong, who joined MPI in 2003, remembers that right from her first days at the organisation the founder stressed that Adong was going to receive more than just medicine to live. “I had just come out of the LRA rebel ranks and felt alone because all people, including my own family members, were shunning me,” Adong says. “I joined MPI looking to simply get medicine and survive, but the director [Busingye] repeatedly told me that I had to discover my value as a human being.”

Adong’s words echo a sentiment you will hear from virtually every woman at MPI, regarding how the organisation’s approach to positive living has enabled them to do more than just have prolonged lives.
“I used to lock myself in my house, worried, dejected and bitter as I thought only about my impending death,” says another member, Sandra Kebirungi who joined the organisation four years ago. “But when I joined MPI, I found fellow HIV-positive women who were living happily and positively, enjoying their lives and pursuing their dreams and doing many other great things. I also fell in line with them and ever since I’ve learned to enjoy life without worrying, to plan for my future, have mercy on others”

The founder of MPI explains that like any other HIV intervention, her first line of action as she started helping the women of MPI was to provide them with medication to save and prolong life. She says this is actually still a major intervention at the organisation, as the women are given free antiretroviral drugs and they have a clinic where a doctor is always at hand to treat them.

However, Busingye adds that even more, she didn’t want the women to merely live. “I wanted to help the women live decent, meaningful lives even as they were positive. I wanted them, more than anything else, to recognise and appreciate their value as human beings, even in the face of their HIV status. Because once a person realises they have a value, they can’t let a situation define them.”

Teddy Bongomin, the chief administrator of MPI, reckons that the success of the organisation’s intervention is indeed it’s approaching of HIV not merely as a disease, but as a social problem. She says because of this approach, MPI members have got not just medicine but also moral support, a sense of purpose, encouragement, among other things a person with HIV needs to live positively.

As an example Bongomin says, “We are all grouped in clusters of ten to monitor each other’s health practices in a sisterly spirit, to ensure each one is taking their medication and to ensure anyone who is sick visits the doctor, among other things.”

Livelihood support
Josephine Atimango, another longtime member, reminisces how at the time MPI came around, many of the women were unemployed, while those who had something to do were stone breakers in the nearby quarry. “Stone-breaking was terrible work for a woman with HIV,” Atimango says. “Worse, it still didn’t pay enough to survive on such that we lacked food at home, could hardly meet our rent, couldn’t send our children to school.”
Atimango says it was only when Busingye came around with the MPI initiative that their livelihoods improved, as in addition to medication MPI provided them with food and other basic needs.

In time, MPI initiated a craft-making project for the women to become economically productive and support themselves, and the women of MPI say it is impossible to explain how much the project has turned around their lives.

“We make and sell our necklaces and other crafts. From the handicrafts many of us have been able to buy land, build houses, even to invest in other ventures,” Atimango says.
Rose explains that most of the handcrafts (majority being necklaces) are exported to foreign markets, where each fetches no less than $3 –with friends of MPI like the Italian NGO, AVSI, helping to market the crafts.

A model others should emulate?
Bongomin reckons that it is rather impossible to tell the different aspects of life that belonging to MPI positively touches. However, she points out the provision of general moral support as the cornerstone of whatever they do, and says that perhaps it is something that needs to be adopted by everyone aiming to assist people living with HIV.

Adong echoes Bongomin’s opinion, saying that those caring for people with HIV might do well to emulate Busingye’s model, of not merely providing medication but aiming to offer support in every aspect so that the person is self-sufficient.

Education for their children

Today, the women of MPI have two top-standard schools for their children, Luigi Guissani Primary School and Luigi Guissani High School, both located in Kireka.

Here, the children of the women study free of charge, each one funded by a foreign sponsor MPI and her partners have been able to secure for the children. However, the schools were constructed primarily using proceeds from the crafts the women make, and the sponsors mostly help with the expenses to run the schools.

Teddy Bongomin explains that from the outset Busingye prioritised education of the women’s children as one of the services MPI had to offer.

“Rose [the founder] stressed that any intervention for the women had to incorporate their families, especially education of the children so that as educated adults they would be able to lift their families and benefit society as a whole,” Bongomin says. She adds that this also improved the women’s spirits as they knew their children’s future was bright and they also stopped worrying about school fees.

Busingye says that initially the women’s children were sponsored in public schools, but women came up with the idea of having their own schools since it would be cheaper and the teaching methods would be as per the women’s requirements.

features@ug.nationmedia.com

SOURCE: Daily Monitor

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