Making a difference in Uganda
KIYUNGA, Uganda – The JIM Education Center here is a humble collection of buildings scattered around a dusty, uneven courtyard. The earliest of these buildings, originally a boys’ dormitory, is a mud hut with a roof too low to stand beneath and soccer ball-sized holes in the walls. The more recent structures are built from bricks made with clay dug from the sports field, with galvanized tin roofs that make teaching impossible when it rains. But more than any other place I’ve ever been, this school has come to symbolize for me the remarkable possibility for endurance and optimism that exists in the human spirit. Despite its modest appearance, this school gives hope to some of Uganda’s poorest children.Josephus Gavah is the headmaster of the school, and for the duration of my stay there was also my host. The story behind the school begins back in 1994, a year that would change virtually every aspect of Josephus’ life. While applying for teacher training in Libya, Josephus tested positive for HIV. A subsequent test revealed that his wife, Mary, also had the virus. Braving prejudice and alienation, Josephus and Mary decided to go public with the news of their illness, becoming the first people in the Mukono district of Uganda to do so.
Along with secrecy, the illness carried with it a burden of despair; many of the fellow sufferers Josephus and his wife met had accepted that they were simply waiting to die. Recognizing that this retreat from life was the one symptom of the disease that he could do something about, Josephus decided to found a support group called Mudinet (Mukono District Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS) and began learning what he could do to help others.The support group started with just 14 members, all of whom were HIV positive. By putting a face to the disease, Josephus hoped to begin the process of de-stigmatizing the illness, and also hoped to show sufferers that they were not alone. The counseling focused on ‘positive living’ strategies, which aimed to help sufferers make the most of post-HIV life. In addition to counseling, the group also provided members with mosquito nets, home-based care and help in will-writing while distributing condoms in the wider community. Positive living counseling and awareness raising events did much to address the needs of local people, but before long it became apparent that one important group was being left by the wayside. A generation of children was emerging whose parents’ lives had been claimed by HIV; without the possibility of continuing their education and often with no one to care for them, the future of these children looked very bleak.Again, where most would see only an inevitable humanitarian crisis, Josephus saw a chance to make a difference. He and Mary sold their home in Mukono and used the money to buy a plot of land in a small outlying village called Kiyunga.
The plan was simple: build a school where AIDS orphans could receive primary education without suffering prejudice from their peers or teachers. With little money left after buying the land, Josephus cleared the dense vegetation by himself and built the first classrooms using whatever materials were at hand. As soon as the school was habitable, the school opened its gates and the first students were enrolled.Over the years, much has changed at the JIM Education Centre. The school now has over 300 students, around 50 of whom are AIDS orphans boarding at the school free of charge. In 2001, Mary succumbed to AIDS-related illness. She is buried at the school, close to the original dormitory. Josephus has since remarried to Rosemary, who also lost her first spouse to AIDS. Mudinet has expanded to over 1,400 members, and has been recognized as a model of how support groups in Africa and elsewhere should be run. Josephus is one of five surviving members of the original 14. Twelve years after being diagnosed, Josephus is still healthy and has not yet needed ARVs (AntiRetroVirals, the drugs that are used to control the effects of the virus). He continues to be a forceful and inspiring leader within the community, as well as a living example of the ‘positive living’ strategies he teaches.
Asked how he’s survived HIV so long without treatment, Josephus smiles and says “I eat well and take care of myself. But really, you have to ask God. He’s the one who has kept me healthy all this time. Perhaps he keeps me alive so that I can continue my work here.”To learn more about AIDS in Uganda, visit http://www.aidsuganda.orgHarry Brooks is an intern with the Vail Daily, and is originally from the U.K. He spent February and March of 2006 as an English teacher in Kiyunga, in central Uganda.