In Testimonies of Love

“I will not die before you do” Peace’s Story of Survival

Peace’s mother sold her and smiled.

“You don’t belong to anyone,” she said, looking down at the girl as she was forced to take off her clothes. Peace wrapped a red piece of cloth around her waist, not understanding where her mother was going, or why she had taken her here. Children peered out at her from behind the legs of adults, fear etched into every one of their faces.

“You’re going to die here,” her mother said.

Peace was just 7 years old. But in her head, she silently spoke her response.

Trust me, Mommy, she said. I will not die before you do. 

Childhood

This woman was not Peace’s mother. But when she first found Peace sleeping on the streets of Rakai, that’s exactly who she said she was. The woman cleaned Peace up, fed her dinner, and made her feel comfortable in her home, a large house far from the village 5-year-old Peace had initially fled.

“From this day forward, I am your mother,” the woman said. “You don’t have to worry anymore.”

Peace never knew her biological mother, but her last adopted family had forced her to sleep on the cold, hard ground outside their house. Peace’s new mother sent her to boarding school.

Though Peace was thrilled to go to school, she was anxious to see her mother again. She hadn’t been feeling well, and she was worried it was related to the fact that she wasn’t taking her medication anymore. Peace didn’t know what the medicine was for, but for as long as she could remember, the medicine had made her feel better. At her last home, Peace had been forced to clean the house, wash clothes, and scavenge for food — but she did swallow pills every day.

The holidays grew nearer, and returning home consumed the young girl’s thoughts.

“As time went on, I found out that my mother tried to pay the teachers to keep me at school,” Peace said. “But they kept telling her: you need to pick up your girl. Finally, she did.”

Back in Rakai, Peace’s reunion with her mother was short-lived. The woman left her with some food and water, and told Peace she’d be back in a week. When the woman’s husband found Peace at the house unaccompanied, he threw her out of the house, threatening to kill her when Peace tried to explain that the woman — his wife — was her mother.

Peace had no choice but to go back to the streets. For weeks, she shuffled from empty building to empty building to find somewhere to live, doing everything she could to get enough food to survive. Despite the last encounter she had with the woman’s husband, she felt like she had no choice. She went back to the large house  to ask for help.

Once she got there, Peace collapsed into the woman’s arms. Her husband wasn’t home, but he would be returning, she said. The woman dried Peace’s tears and held her close.

“Don’t cry,” the woman said. “I’m taking you to live with my sister.”

The woman brought Peace into a forest, claiming her sister had a large house of her own just a short distance away. The woman forced Peace to walk for hours, pressing her to continue until they finally reached a clearing in the woods.

The area was filled with dilapidated thatched huts. Peace had no idea where she was, or more alarming, why a wealthy woman’s sister would live in the depths of the forest. Her questions wouldn’t be answered until days later, when another young girl dressed in crimson explained where they were — and what they were doing there.

Before long, the woman was walking toward home with a money-filled envelope.

Peace was walking toward death in a child sacrifice camp.

Transitions

Today, Peace is 18 years old. Peace is a survivor — not only of poverty, violence, homelessness, and attempted murder, but also, of HIV.

After three months of trauma, Peace escaped the child sacrifice camp and boarded a taxi to Kampala. Weak and undernourished, she was soon back on the streets. She was rounded up with a group of other street children and sent to live in a police cell. When no one came to pick her up, Peace spent three years in a children’s prison.

Every day that passed, Peace’s health deteriorated more. Peace hadn’t committed a crime, but she also didn’t have a home. Without anyone to care for her, she remained in prison until she was adopted once more at the age of 11.

By that time, Peace had been without her medication (which, she later found out, was HIV treatment) for more than six years.

“The doctors thought I had brain damage because I was so sick,” Peace said. “I was finally adopted into a real, kind family, and my mother brought me to see Dr. Pasquine.”

AMS doctors tested Peace for HIV. When she tested positive, they started her on antiretroviral treatment. Thought her parents told Peace that the medicine would keep her healthy and strong, she didn’t realize she was HIV positive until her parents disclosed to her at the age of 13.

“I was terrified,” Peace said. “I had already gone through so many things. You wouldn’t even know I could speak because I was so quiet, I refused to talk.”

Peace became unconsolable. Unwilling to accept her diagnose, she stopped taking her medication. Peace’s parents brought her back to AMS for counseling, and while she was there, the staff introduced Peace to the Victor’s Club, AMS’ program and peer support group for youth living with HIV.

After interacting with doctors, counselors, and her HIV-positive peers, Peace realized her life was far from over. She kept returning to AMS for Victor’s Club meetings and treatment, and slowly, she began to open up. She started talking not only about her past memories, but her future fears.

Finally, Peace said, she had found a place where she could just be herself.

Today

“I never had friends before Victor’s Club,” Peace said. “Once I started coming, things really changed. Now, I’m so social — everyone here knows me.”

Today, Peace counsels younger children involved in Victor’s Club and organizes meetings for her peers. She feels stigma free, she said, and openly shows her medication to anyone who asks about it.

Though Peace’s family has moved to Entebbe, she continues to come to AMS for Victor’s Club meetings, treatment and medication, and other AMS initiatives, such as last year’s music therapy program. Over the summer, Peace was trained at AMS to become a youth peer educator. At this training, she acquired the skills to help HIV positive children and adolescents in her community, and has since helped a number of HIV positive youth in Entebbe find clinics close to their home.

“I love being involved because I am one of them,” Peace said, speaking about the other HIV positive youth in the Victor’s Club. “I used to be like them, refusing to take the drugs. Now, I am healthy. I can help them.”

Peace is now studying counseling at her university. After graduation, she wants to become a minister, spreading messages of love, health , and hope not just in Uganda, but around the world.

“Having HIV is not my fault,” Peace said. “There’s nothing to be done about it. You have to accept the life you were given, and move on.”

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