HIVS/AIDS. Just hearing the word makes me nervous. Uganda is often celebrated as a success story for its reduction of HIV and efforts to stop the spread of the disease. That is one side of the story. The statistics.
The other side of the story are the real people who are infected every day and the others who pass away. Northern Uganda is old LRA territory. Lira and its surrounding areas were directly affected by Joseph Kony and the 25 year war and they were further affected by the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps where disease spread like wildfire, including HIV/AIDS. The infection rate here is higher than other parts of the country. Many believe that we have no real sense because so many villagers simply don’t get tested.
We test all of the children who come to Atin Afrika. We know that when they go home to the village nobody will be able to afford the ARVs to treat them and we also know that in the village or on the street if unaware they will, one day, pass HIV along to someone else. We know that the moment they step through that green gate they are ours. Ours to love and counsel and ours to educate and care for. We are not an orphanage. We are a transitional shelter. We believe kids belong at home in their communities. We also believe that we have a responsibility to make their lives better and help care for them once they are there.
Every time we take a group of kids to be tested my stomach knots. We have somehow been fortunate, we have dodged HIV, as if it were a shadow lurking behind a cupboard. The naive girl inside of me likes to believe that maybe all of the love and life at Atin has somehow helped. The realist knows that it not the case. It is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. A positive test will rock our little haven and force me to face our children’s own mortality. Each time we go for testing I repeat to myself like a mantra…please let today not be the day.
When Morrish came to us with strange bubbles on his face the other children said it was demons. I said let’s call the doctor. Kate, an amazing British doctor volunteering at Charis Medical Centre came to check on him. She gently handled his ravaged face with kindness and care. She took photos and consulted with her colleagues. The diagnosis: shingles (a form of herpes). Shingles usually affects the elderly and those with a compromised immune system. Kate’s fear for Morrish…HIV.
We took all 17 children for testing together. Some like Jimmy, Margaret and Lamek had already been tested and found to be negative, but we tried to make the morning light-hearted and turn it into an adventure not a scary trip to the AIDS Information Centre. For hours I held my breath, terrified that today luck would run out and that Morrish would be positive.
As we went down the list I smiled, Janol negative, Tony negative, Olando negative, Solomon negative…Morrish negative! But then tears filled my eyes and overflowed marking tracks down the dust on my face. One of the girls… positive. The shadow came out of hiding. It is staring me right in the face.