Lives of HIV positive teenagers

Juanita Nassolo told a group of fellow HIV positive adolescents that her teacher often tells pupils in her school that she cannot be punished because she is HIV positive. “My aunt told him I was HIV positive not to subject me to strenuous exercises that would possibly make my health condition worse. But I did not expect to be condemned to public reminders that I was HIV positive. The pupils in the school have marked me and believe that it is a health risk to sit next to me or to share anything edible with me. If I want to share a pancake or a piece of bread with them, many of them don’t want to eat it because I have touched it.”

John Nkonge told another group that many pupils at his school believe he will die any time.
“They tell me about posters carrying messages such as “AIDS KILLS”. They say I am wasting time at school.
“Whenever I miss school, the entire school thinks I went to pick ARVs from the clinic,” another boy said.

School-going HIV positive teenagers suffer persecution, segregation and stigmatisation yet have limited capacity to overcome the agony. It was overwhelming as adolescents told their bitter experiences to health workers, guardians and officials of Suubi-Adherence project.

I owe it to Jajja
It took me time to realise that I was receiving special attention with regard to my health. Jajja (grandmother) took me to the clinic nearly every month even when I was not sick.
Whenever we went to the clinic, we left with tablets (enough to last a full month) for me to swallow everyday around sunset. She told me I used to be very sick in infancy and that I got a lot better as I grew older on account of the medication.

The nurse supervising my progress in the Suubi Adherence Project recently told me that Jajja never missed taking me to the clinic on all the appointed days. I was born HIV positive and both my parents are deceased. We are three children in our home, all of us orphans but my cousins are HIV free.

There were a number of children whose parents or guardians went to the same clinic to get the same medication I got. Some of them are schoolmates. I am now 15 and Jajja does not have to accompany me to the clinic. Her role now is to remind me to take my medicine every evening. She also helps me with my Suubi Adherence Project savings.

Over the weekends, we help to weed the garden or attend to the cows. Jajja has taught all of us to prepare food and I can peel bananas.

It is not easy to live with HIV. But at the clinic, we were told that we can live a full life if we regularly take the medicine.
However, we keep on hearing of people who have died of the same.
Many children at school know about my condition and most of them are kind to me. But there are some who don’t even want to sit near me, especially when I catch a cold. Some think that if I cough or sneeze I can spread not only the cold but also HIV.
I want to grow up and get married but they tell me that no girl will agree to marry me because of my ill health. My class teacher has aised me to concentrate on my studies and not to worry about HIV.

He told me no one knows when they will die. He wants me to complete O-Level and study agriculture at Mbuye Farm School so that I become a poultry farmer. He has given me several examples of adults who are living normal lives as successful farmers yet they are HIV positive and taking ARVs. Jajja is determined to pay my fees and always encourages me to grow beans and maize in my own garden. When we sell the items, the money is saved under the Suubi Adherence Project arrangement. She also deposits on my account when I am unable to save any money. The money will pay my fees when I join Mbuye Farm School.

Men should leave me alone
I have to pass through a trading centre on my way to school. In the past two or so years, I have been subjected to a lot of challenges paused by young men who want to sleep with me despite my HIV positive status. I am 16 years old and I was born with HIV. Boda-boda riders offer me lifts to and from school if I agree to sleep with them.

Whenever there is a disco in the trading centre, there is a married man who promises to pay my entrance fees. If I go to buy any items from his grocery shop he gives me some of them free.
I now avoid his shop. There is boda-boda rider who is angry with me because I have refused to accept his offers.

He tells me that it is safe to have sex with him as long as we use a condom but I do not want to be distracted from my studies.
My teacher has also made similar approaches and has threatened to fail me in my end of year exams if I do not sleep with him.
He is aware of my HIV status and also claims to also be HIV positive. At the clinic, the nurse warned us that even people with HIV can get re-infected with new strains of the virus so I consider that risky.

I discussed all these scenarios with my aunt who has looked after me since my mother died. She has told me to be firm and not to give in to any of the demands made by the teacher, boda-boda man and the shopkeeper.

A friend of mine who is older than I am, laughs at me for not giving in to these demands. She once told me, “You say that when you save Shs20,000 the Suubi project matches those savings with an equal amount.” If you ask the shopkeeper for the money and he uses a condom, your savings account will be taken care of.” However, my aunt has warned me that sex with married men is risky. The risk is not just HIVAids but many other social problems including unplanned pregnancy.

I am surprised that some men are not afraid of catching Aids. Many other young men want me to hang around the shops drinking soda and even alcohol. Some friends tell me how they had a great time with the boys in the trading centre. It is something that my friends want me to enjoy also.
Yet, in all our health talks with the senior woman at the school, that kind of behaviour is described as risky.

*Names changed to protect identities of the victims

Stories compiled by Michael J. Ssali