One of the most defining experiences of my life was growing up in Uganda in the midst of an AIDS epidemic; it was like a horror movie with the walking dead haunting the streets.
My Aunt was severely sick with it at the time; I remember her pain, she felt dirty, simply hiding away from sight.
I used to visit her now and again; one day a friend of mine followed me to her house and when he knocked was shocked to see her. “Rama – I didn’t know you were affected, you lied to me, I can’t believe I shared soda with you.” That was the dichotomy; the “infected” and the “affected.”
The collective denial of society dictated that all people should merely ignore the issue until it went away; when a new virulent disease appears on the scene, the first instinct is to stigmatise it but this stigma is what causes more harm than the disease itself.
The truth was that we were all “affected” and we still are; there is no Rwandan who can say they haven’t lost a family member to AIDS-related causes. Even when they die we claim it was TB or cancer; something more “noble” because we would have more pity for a smoker who dies of lung-cancer that an innocent child infected in childbirth.
My Aunt Esther died of AIDS, I am not ashamed of it, it doesn’t make her less of a person and we need to say it openly.
When I think of the ignorance at the time of my puberty, it is a wonder how I avoided peer pressure to do stupid things; the whole dormitory would sleep with one girl, there was a fatalistic “whatever will happen, will happen” attitude. People were not aware of the risks they were taking, they didn’t see the long-term.
AIDS needs ignorance to flourish but ignorance is still there in abundance. It is our reluctance to discuss it freely that will cost us; we can have sex education but what about “love education?” You have to deal with human relationships; anti-AIDS campaigns are about changing how men think about women and themselves, and also dealing with women’s self-image and their relationship to men.
East Africa is undergoing a sexual revolution of sorts.
Young people have the internet and feel more kinship with fellow youngsters across the world than their elders; they are having sex more often, with more partners, they have unprotected sex and use the morning-after pill and this has the danger of undoing all the hard work in AIDS awareness.
Uganda did a lot to fight AIDS but found their hard work was undone by complacency; a new upwardly mobile generation which didn’t see the ravages of AIDS felt immune from it and numbers rose briefly in the 2003 period.
We cannot afford such complacency; we need to be more open about it but not on billboards but within the family. We should promote abstinence but be realistic that the youth will be youth; condoms are not the only answer but knowledge is.
We have recently announced proposals to make an HIV test compulsory before marriage but we have to break the stigma first.
The truth is that AIDS is very manageable compared to what it used to be. When someone dies of AIDS today, they have in essence died of needless ignorance; only honesty can kill that ignorance, let us not hide this anymore.