Yesterday, I went to visit a woman with AIDS. I met her 12 hours ago and now I’m so disturbed and distraught, I lie in bed at 03h00, unable to sleep.

My day started with a visit to the one hospital in the Nakivale refugee settlement camp in southwest Uganda. It provides free medical care to a population of about 114,000 people.

I went to learn more about HIV treatments in the camp. To my surprise, there were hundreds of people at the HIV department, waiting for their medicines and continued care. It was hot there. The sun was blistering.

The people—infants, children, women and men were among the patients—wait all day, then are told to come back the next day because the staff has no more time to see them.

They return the following day, to the same mayhem. They have no scheduled appointments, so it’s first come, first served. The number of patients with HIV is so great that there isn’t enough time in the day to see them all, so they wait and return and wait and return.

Living with AIDS

Later in the day, I went to see a woman who is now 46 years old. She has had HIV for many years. Her story took my breath away. I listened and was speechless … suddenly deaf and mute.

She reluctantly shared her story with me as tears escaped from her eyes, and she cowered, trying to hide them from me. Shamed by her fate, she did her best to peel back bandages that cover deep wounds.

When she was eight years old, she was raped by a man in her home country, Burundi. Such assaults are shameful, and the details of each one are locked away in one’s heart, never to be shared or mentioned to anyone on the outside.

Twelve years later, when she was 20 years old, she was raped again. This time, she got pregnant, but the baby died from ‘infections.’ Shortly after the death of her baby, the woman’s mother died.

While her mother’s death was premature, it came at an opportune time. With eight siblings to mother, childcare was the perfect distraction from the violent assault of a monster who took her life away yet again. And yet again, words were buried and shame was burdensome; for, without an audience or a shoulder from the outside world to lean on, a whole lot of emotions stay inside.

The woman’s story continues.

Years later, when she was 30 years old, she was raped again, and yet again, she got pregnant. But this time, the baby boy lived. But did he? The woman was tested for HIV at the hospital when she delivered. She was positive. Her baby boy tested positive for HIV, too.

War broke out in Burundi. She and the baby boy fled to Congo. Sometime later, war broke out there, too, so she fled with the baby to Tanzania. The Tanzanians dislike foreigners, particularly ‘pathetic refugees’ who come to their country and compete for the few resources they have. So they threaten their lives and brutalize them until they flee. And flee they did. The woman and baby boy fled to Kenya, where they were given refuge in a camp. A good day, indeed.

Then a miracle … the two wandering souls were given asylum in Canada. It was a good day when she received this news, a very good day. But the day had only 24 hours, like every other day. In other words, every day has a beginning and an end.

Yes, good days end, and hers did. Shortly before her departure to Canada, the president of Burundi requested that all fellow Burundians in exile return home. With provisions made to repatriate citizens, and their safety secured, the woman and her child were no longer considered refugees, so their invitation to Canada for asylum was withdrawn.

Living in a refugee settlement

The woman and boy (by this time, he was no longer a baby) went back to Burundi to live in peace. But that didn’t happen. Back home, they were again enshrined in conflict. The government looked disfavourably on Burundians who had fled its borders.

I don’t know what happened on their return, but it wasn’t the hero’s welcome one would have hoped for. Later, war broke out again and the woman and boy (now a teen) fled to Uganda, where they are now living in a refugee settlement to try to begin again.

The woman is black but pale, clearly struggling to survive in spite of medication that she takes daily. Her fingernails, palms and conjunctiva are pale, a sign of severe anemia.

By some fortuitous coincidence, I am taken to meet this woman whose story touched, captured and incapacitated me. The woman is black but pale, clearly struggling to survive in spite of medication that she takes daily.

Her fingernails, palms and conjunctiva are pale, a sign of severe anemia. Her pulse is rapid, and it doesn’t take a doctor to know she is doing her best to make it … make it for another day. Fatigued from a lack of iron in her blood, she has severe anemia from malnutrition.

I ask the woman to show me her house, which was constructed by church members and others who had a heart. She obliges me and walks there awkwardly, with the help of a metal crutch that has been her friend for years after a bike accident.

Her garden has nothing growing. Her son collects water from a distant source, two 10-litre jerrycans a day. She has a solar panel to power two or three LED bulbs that give her enough light to see (barely). She got this from people at the church.

“Does your church support you?” I ask.
“No, I go from church to church and get some coins from people,” she answers.
“Do you have support from other people, like people who were raped and have HIV?” I ask, gently.
“Yes, my sister.”
“Your sister?”
“Yes, my sister.”
“She was raped and got HIV, too?”

The woman’s small hut-house has a central room with two benches made from earth in it. Each is covered with a small piece of material to make it look more aesthetic. In the same room, in the corner, is a charcoal stove. There is no food on it. It is already 6 p.m.

The bedroom has a mattress that is adequate for two. She and her 16-year-old son share it. Her possessions are spartan, but neatly arranged. There is another small room that is used as a pantry, but there is nothing but a bag of charcoal in it. That is her house. It is spotless, I might add.

Weeds are plants, too

At the back of her house, there is a small field. I see a papaya plant doing its best to show itself. The woman says it is not a papaya plant. It is a weed.

What I thought were manioc leaves are not, as well. They are also weeds. But what is a weed? It is a plant growing in a place in which it hasn’t been invited to be there. Perhaps, even without an invitation, these uninvited guests could nourish our hungry friend.

The thought is a good one, but these particular weeds are not edible. They had taken up residence in her garden, and she hadn’t the strength to assert herself and disinvite them, or plant something in their place. So the land continued to lie limp and useless.

Speaking of food, refugees have the right to 12 kilograms of rice, two kilograms of beans and a few litres of cooking oil per person, per month. She and her boy, therefore, receive twice this—a gift from the international community. The woman sells part of their food rations to buy soap to clean, and some charcoal to cook.

Speaking of charcoal, I asked the woman to show me her tongue to access her anemia. It was black. Did she have a sickness? No, “I eat charcoal when we have no food,” she says.

“Oh,” I reply. What else could I say to a 46-year-old woman with AIDS, who was infected by men who raped her?

 After my cursory assessment of the sum total of her life, I sat quietly for a few minutes. “I’ll make you a deal,” I said, unexpectedly. “I will show you how to crochet kippot/yarmulke, the small head coverings Jewish men wear to show humility to God, and then I will buy 100 of them from you. With the money you make, you can buy good food for yourself and your son.”

The woman took a deep breath, because she couldn’t breathe with this news. The speechlessness I had when I listened to her story was now hers to handle.

“I will pay you in advance for these kippot, so you can begin to eat food that will heal you,” I continued.

As she was still stunned and unable to respond, I showed her a short video of Bobo, a man with AIDS whom I had helped in Zambia, many years ago. He was a mere sliver when I started feeding him, but at the end of the video there was a photo of Bobo, months later, that showed a proud, strong and full-chested man in his full glory.

The woman watched the small computer screen intently. When she saw Bobo’s transformation, she gasped. Could it be? It had to be. There he was in front of her, on a small portable computer in her hut-house, nearly in the flesh.

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