I recently boarded a plane for a 7,000 mile trip from Uganda to Washington, DC. It was my first visit to the U.S. and the longest flight I’ve ever taken. But it wasn’t my greatest journey. That began years ago, almost as far back as I can remember…
I don’t remember being born, of course. That was in Kamwokya – the slum in Kampala, Uganda where I grew up. And I was too young to remember watching my mother weaken and eventually succumb to a debilitating disease when I was five. I also don’t fully remember my father telling me she had “lung cancer,” but for years I loathed the disease for taking her from me.
I remember other things though. I remember bearing the pain of life without a mother. And I remember the day when I learned about the true circumstances of her death, the day my journey began. I was 14.
My twin brother came to me that day, terrified, because he had unprotected sex with a classmate. I told him to go to the local health center to get tested for HIV. But he was so afraid to go alone that I decided to get tested too, even though I was a virgin and couldn’t possibly be infected. I remember how relieved I felt when his results came back negative.
And I remember the moment my life changed forever: when my results came back positive.
Word traveled quickly. When I got home, I was met with my father’s booming voice. He screamed at me for hours, questioning me for getting tested. I remember sobbing uncontrollably with floods of unanswered questions lingering in my mind. Eventually, the yelling subsided and my stepmother carried me aside to tell me the bitter truth: My mother didn’t die from lung cancer. She died from AIDS. Cancer was just a story they told us so we wouldn’t be traumatized and afraid.
The next stage of my journey is clouded by bitterness and fear. Out of seven children, I was the only one born with HIV. Why only me? I remember toiling with the idea of death – my death. After all, I knew no one with HIV can live a normal, healthy life. People with HIV are going to die.
And for the next three years, that’s all I wanted to do. I tried all possible means to get rid of my life.
I remember feeling like a total outcast. I remember dealing with the stigma surrounding HIV: the harsh judgement from some and the painful sympathy from others. I remember plummeting from the top of my class to the very bottom because all I could think about was my death. I remember that on eight separate occasions I took a handful of my HIV medication and went to sleep expecting to die. And I remember each time I woke up feeling more hopeless than before.
The feeling that death was never ready to welcome me infuriated me to the point that I couldn’t see life in myself. But thankfully, I had friends who could.
Eventually, after months of urging from those who cared, my journey finally brought me to an AIDS support group. I remember meeting other people like me – young women and girls living with HIV. Over time I realized that some of them had it much worse than I did. Despite my anger and turmoil, the journey had taken a much greater toll on their bodies and spirits than it had on mine. And that’s the moment I began to see my purpose in this world. I started to believe that my HIV-positive status didn’t have to be a death sentence. It was simply a blessing in disguise.
Today, at age 22, I use these memories to inspire and help other young women and girls. They are the reason I flew all the way to D.C. In Washington, I shared my story on Capitol Hill and gave a voice to the millions of people around the world whose lives are at stake while Congress debates future foreign aid budgets. I called for increased funding for America’s successful international AIDS efforts: the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The Global Fund is an international public-private partnership that works alongside PEPFAR to provide no-cost life-saving treatment to millions of HIV-positive people like me around the world. But there is still a lot of work to be done.
Every 90 seconds, a young woman becomes infected with HIV. That’s unacceptable. We – the millions infected with HIV and the millions more at risk of contracting HIV – need the U.S. and other countries around the world to continue to fund life-saving programs and research to help end this epidemic for good.
About Martha Clara Nakato: Martha Clara is an activist and motivational speaker in Uganda. Earlier this year, she was invited to become a Global Fund HER Voice Ambassador for Uganda.
About the Global Fund: The Global Fund is a 21st-century partnership organization designed to accelerate the end of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria as epidemics. Founded in 2002, the Global Fund is a partnership between governments, civil society, the private sector and people affected by the diseases. The Global Fund raises and invests nearly $4 billion a year to support programs run by local experts in countries and communities most in need. Working together, we have saved 27 million lives and provided prevention, treatment and care services to hundreds of millions of people, helping to revitalize entire communities, strengthen local health systems and improve economies. Learn more at https://www.theglobalfund.org/en/overview.