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.
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.
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.
“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.”
Henry’s wife passed away 25 years ago, but looking at him now, you’d think it happened yesterday. His body stiffens as he talks about her, pausing every so often to extract himself from the memories passing through his head.
“We didn’t know until it was too late,” Henry said. “And after she passed, everything changed.”
Back in 1993, Henry had barely realized what happened until his wife was gone. Henry contracted HIV from another partner and unknowingly passed it along to his wife. After she died, Henry was left to care for four children and his elderly mother, all the while battling HIV himself.
At the time, HIV was severely stigmatized in his community, making it difficult for Henry to openly seek help and treatment.
Henry would walk from health clinic to health clinic attempting to find antiretroviral medication. More often than not, he’d reach the pharmacy counter just to be turned away. It seemed that there were never enough antiretrovirals for everyone suffering, causing Henry’s health – and the wellbeing of his family – to drastically decline.
“I was so depressed during those years,” Henry said. “It was hard to get medication, and it was frustrating to have nowhere to go for help.”
Poor health, guilt and depression began to consume Henry, making it nearly impossible to work, feed his family, and gather the strength to keep on living. When he and his youngest son, Richard, came down with tuberculosis, they could barely afford the medication they needed to stay alive.
Eventually, a friend referred Henry to Alive Medical Services, a small clinic that had just opened up near Henry’s house. He has remained an active client ever since, returning again and again for treatment over the last 10 years.
“Without Alive, I wouldn’t have made it,” Henry said. “I’m healthier now than I’ve ever been, not just because I get free ARVs, but because I get free treatment of opportunistic infections too.”
After his health stabilized, Henry was able to recommit himself to his children, all of whom are HIV negative. Henry worked constantly to earn enough money for school fees. Because of that, his first three children now have families of their own – and his youngest son, Richard, just recently finished his degree. Richard now works as an electrician, and routinely accompanies his father to the clinic for check-ups.
“The counsellors at Alive helped me be strong for my children,” Henry said. “For any single fathers dealing with the same situation, I’d tell them this: push hard for your children.”
Thinking of his past, Henry recognized that often, men avoid HIV clinics. They don’t want to be seen there, he said, but they need to be more open to the idea.
“There’s nothing wrong with getting tested and treated,” Henry said. “It keeps you alive. Today, I’m proud to tell my story and show people how I’ve survived.”
For many, getting tested for HIV can seem like an impossible experience. There’s the fear of diagnosis, of course, but also the fear of being seen: if you’re spotted at an HIV clinic, you could be associated with a virus stigmatized by most of the world.
Such perceptions shape the course of Janipher’s days. Often, she is the first person a client sees upon entering Alive Medical Services (AMS). As part of the front desk department, Janipher works with three other colleagues to receive hundreds of people every day. The team helps clients feel comfortable and cared for throughout their time at the clinic, decreasing waiting time and delays.
“I work with clients of all different characters, colors and classes,” Janipher said. “My job is to show everyone they are welcome no matter who they are, and to help them get the care they need.”
Such inclusiveness is important to Janipher. When she was just a young girl, her father passed away unexpectedly, leaving Janipher and her six siblings without a home. His land was seized and sold, but finally, Janipher’s aunt took her in as the 14th child in her family.
With a family so large, it was only through hard work that Janipher was able to make it through school.
“Life wasn’t easy, but I worked hard,” Janipher said. “I was one of the best students at my university. Because of that, they paid for half of my tuition.”
For the past three years, Janipher has worked as an administrative assistant at AMS. She has overcome the struggles from her childhood — but they have also helped Janipher empathize with patients when they are going through a difficult time.
Monday through Saturday, Janipher receives clients, updates patient information, and keeps records. She also enrolls new clients into the system if they test positive for HIV.
“Every client passes through our hands,” Janipher said. “We monitor every step of their visit to the clinic, and make sure things are running smoothly.”
Since she began working at AMS in 2014, Janipher has watched the clinic’s client load rapidly expand in size: today, the front desk team attends to an average of 170 to 250 clients each day. By greeting each one of those clients with warmth, Janipher helps patients feel at ease at AMS, facilitating their return in the future.
“When clients first come in, they often seem hopeless,” Janipher said. “Our department smiles so we can keep them optimistic.”
Twice a month, food is laid outside the doors of AMS. As the clinic swells with patients, doctors walk from left to right, spreading nutrition information. One by one, AMS’ community health workers call out clients’ names, all of whom have been previously measured for severe food insecurity. After nurses assess their health status, each client receives seven kilograms of rice, seven kilograms of beans, two kilograms of sugar, and a bag of fresh vegetables.
One of those clients is Esther, a 35-year-old HIV-positive mother and a patient at AMS. Esther’s partner left her a year ago, making it nearly impossible to juggle her job – selling roasted meat alongside the roads of Kampala – with the care of her one-month-old baby, Sharidah, and two other children.
Without her partner’s support, Esther’s income dwindled; she could no longer afford to eat properly. Her breastmilk began to run out, causing Sharidah to lose weight drastically and rapidly.
“At one point, my children would wake up every morning with no food on the table,” Esther said. “Sharidah was so weak, and so was I. I didn’t know what to do.”
On her next visit, AMS staff took note of Sharidah’s weight loss. AMS enrolled the family in AMS’ food program, and started the baby on food aid. At the same time, AMS educated Esther on proper infant feeding practices.
In the four months since then, Sharidah’s health has greatly improved: she’s gained nearly four kilograms, and smiles and laughs easily. She’s even built up enough strength to stand and walk on her own.
Once Sharidah’s weight stabilizes, AMS will phase the family out of the food program. Regardless, we will continue to support them through other initiatives. AMS engages more than 300 HIV positive clients in our gardening program, for example, which is made up of 18 different clubs. By teaching clients how to plant, grow, harvest and sell their own crops, we help clients raise their incomes (and eat healthy food) in a sustainable way.
“Because of AMS, I have high hopes for the future,” Esther said. “HIV – and my other challenges – cannot bring me down.”
Across the world, young girls struggle to balance their menstruation cycles and their daily lives. Without the proper resources, a week-long period can mean a week out of school – and because in rural areas, sanitary pads can be expensive and nearly impossible to find, 30 percent of Ugandan girls miss class during their periods.
“I was an orphan, and when I was young, it was so hard for me to get sanitary pads,” said Carol,* a client at Alive Medical Services (AMS). “I had to rip my regular clothes and use those as pads.”
Remembering such experiences, Carol joined AMS’ Kisakye Group as soon as it was launched in February of 2015. AMS established the Kisakye Group for two reasons: the first, to help HIV-positive individuals earn a sustainable income; the second, to support girls and women with menstruation management. AMS trained six clients to cut, sew and create reusable sanitary pads – or “super kits” – for donation.
Each super kit contains four cotton pads, two “shields,” two Ziploc bags and a cloth drawstring bag. These super kits help women use their sanitary pads discretely and with dignity.
Since then, the women have continued coming to the clinic nearly every day to sew. The Kisakye Group produces approximately 200 super kits per quarter, each of which can last up to three years. AMS pays women for each super kit they produce, all of which are donated to vulnerable populations and other AMS clients.
“These pads are so important,” Carol said. “You can wash them easily, which prevents disease and infection.”
The sale of these pads has helped women like Carol change their lives: because of her income from the Kisakye Group – and because of her treatment at AMS for the last nine years – Carol’s health has remained under control. Her two children are HIV-negative, happy and healthy. And, Carol reports that her financial stability has helped her look past the stigma and misconceptions regarding HIV.
In addition, Carol’s husband left her last year. Instead of falling apart, the small family picked themselves up, built a new home, and started their lives on a healthier foot, all because of Carol’s savings from the Kisakye Group.
“I love being here,” Carol said. “Kisakye helped me build a one-bedroom house. It helps me budget for my children. Because I know how to make these pads, my daughter won’t have to deal with her period in the same ways I did.”
* we have changed the name of this client to protect her privacy
Every day, patients gather outside Alive Medical Services’ counselling rooms. They filter in and out of the offices in a seemingly endless procession, waiting for their turn to catch up with our counsellors. One of those counsellors is named Julian, but everyone knows her as Mummy J.
Her nickname came about not only because of her palpable kindness, but also because of her strength – and her ability to support people in the darkest of situations.
“I’ve carried that name everywhere I go,” Julian said. “When I was a child, I took care of the other children. When I was in school, I was the mother of the class. And as a counsellor, I look after my clients. Being mummy was always part of me.”
Julian has been nurturing those around her for as long as she can remember. She lost her parents to AIDS-related illnesses at ages 11 and 13, tragedies that forced Julian to grow up quickly. Though still young herself, she became a leader in a rapidly growing family of HIV-affected orphans; Julian’s aunt, who she had been sent to live with, took in Julian and 20 other children who had nowhere else to turn.
“It was like a big orphanage, or a refugee camp,” Julian said. “In those days, HIV touched everyone. Death was an everyday occurrence, and my aunt – though strict – was the hope of our family.”
Julian lived with her aunt in Wakiso until she got married at age 18. Throughout that time, she cooked, cleaned, and took care of the younger children, constantly putting their needs before her own. It was only until after she was married that Julian revisited her childhood dream of becoming a nurse – but even then, school fees made such an occupation impossible.
In the first years of her marriage, Julian and her husband struggled. They were living in chronic poverty, and because her husband’s job in construction was not enough to support their family, she picked up a job as a domestic servant. The job was a starting point, an entryway to higher education, but Julian gave it everything she had.
Little by little, Julian saved up enough money to begin attending classes again – but this time, it wasn’t a nursing career she was after. Instead, she decided to go down a different path: counselling.
“I performed well in school because I realized I was doing exactly what I was supposed to do,” Julian said. “And exactly what I had been doing for years. I know that sometimes, people just need someone to listen. I’ve been there, and I know the power of love.”
Soft-spoken and warm, Julian’s essence makes people feel valued, listened to, and supported. She had always connected easily with people, and those strengths reaffirmed her decision to become a counsellor in a medical setting, as she knew the toll HIV could take on a person’s life.
After completing her studies, Julian began working at AMS in 2010. Since then, she’s seen countless clients, helping people recover and rebuild through the strength of her words. Barbara, a counsellor in Julian’s department, said she has a way of understanding the clients.
“She’s good at listening, and she always goes the extra mile for the patients,” Barbara said.
Still, it’s not just the patients Julian touches at AMS – she has had an impact on each member of the AMS staff. Nearly every morning, she leads the team in song and dance, bringing light to a day that is often filled, by nature of an HIV-clinic, with difficult, trying experiences. Jenifer, a monitoring and evaluation officer, described Julian as a giver, something that goes hand-in-hand with kindness.
“I do what I can to help people smile,” Julian said. “It’s all about building hope in a hopeless situation.”