I triumphed over HIV stigma, I now stand tall – Miss Y+
At 11 years, Gloria Nawanyaga, a third-year student of Uganda Christian University (UCU) learnt the hard truth that she was HIV positive. However, despite the stigma that soon followed her new discovery, Nawanyaga never gave up on life. Today, she is Miss Y+ (Young Positives), a position that has enabled her restore hope among hundreds of young people living with HIV. She is also an ambassador with Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV.
This is her story
At 11 years, Nawanyaga, 18 became so curious at how frequent her mother would take her and her sibling to hospital every Thursday.
“I would ask her why she used to take us to the hospital and we would miss school sometimes. So one day, she took us out, bought [for] us drinks, and
then asked us if we knew about HIV/AIDS and I said yes even when I did know anything about it. Then she asked what I knew about HIV. I toldher that people with HIV are going to die.”
Nawanyaga’s reply scared her mother so much that it nearly stopped her from disclosing to them their HIV status. “She asked again what I would do if I found out that I had the disease. She then realised that I was heartbroken to be told the truth,” Nawanyanga recalls.
Noticing the psychological torture the revelation could cause, her mother decided to take them to Makerere University, John Hopkins University, a research collaboration that focuses on HIV, TB and takes care of children born with HIV by restoring hope in them.
“She thought it was right to take us there so that we would not feel lonely in this world. It was true because when we reached there and saw other kids, we felt some sense of relief. At least we were not alone.”
After coming to terms with her status, Nawanyaga went back to school. But because she had to always go for medication, Nawanyanga used to skip school every Thursday. One day, a concerned teacher asked her why she was missing his classes on Thursday.
“I was scared to divulge my secret but he assured me of confidentiality, claiming that he was a counsellor and I could confide in him. So I opened up about my status but soon I regretted why I did because he went around telling everyone. It did not take long before the entire school knew [my status]. I faced stigma and segregation to the extent that I hated the school.”
Owing to the segregation and stigma, Nawanyaga went off her medication for two terms while in P7 because she was afraid of pupils laughing at her and asking if truly she was HIV positive.
“In P7, the school required that everyone had to join the boarding section, which to me was real hell because it would further expose me,” she said. “I went off my medication and I severely fell sick.”
“In S1 at Bethel High School, I continued to fall so sick that I was admitted at Joint Reach Centre (JRC) where Uganda Christian University, Kampala Campus, is now situated. I lost a lot of weight and became skinny and bonny. I could vomit everything I ate and took, including the medicine. My entire skin was filled witha terrible rash,” she recalls.
Nawanyaga recalls lying on a bed in between two patients, who later died. “I thought I was the next one,” she said.
But with God’s healing power, she recovered and became the talk of Bunga, aKampala suburb where she lived with her family.
“Some people alleged that I had had an abortion while others thought I was bewitched. I used to cover my entire body because I had black spots all over my body and I didn’t want people to see them,” she says.
At school, one of her female teachers got concerned and asked what could be the problem with her because sometimes she used to report with a cannula on her hands, for fear of stigma.
“I lied to her that I had blood cancer. However, later after the school administration learned about my HIV status, a teacher called me to the staffroom and told me to kneel down. Then she accused me of spreading HIV amongst the boys. Some boys started calling me silimu (AIDS). At that point I started hating myself. I hated my parents and blamed them for giving me the disease that had made people hate me that much. I wanted to commit suicide,” Nawanyaga recalls.
She stopped attending school and one day she wanted to take her life by swallowing a cell.
“But I was very prayerful. So one day I went to the backyard of our house where I usually went to hide and cry and I told God to show me a sign that he really existed so that I could not to kill myself. As I was buried in tears, I suddenly saw the rubbish that was near me start to burn. I was so scared that I ran away. I never thought of suicide again.”
Life at campus
“At campus, a female friend approached me to be her roommate. I obliged to it but I had not foreseen the implications of staying with her,” she says.
One day, her roommate’s boyfriend went through her suitcase and discovered that there were Anti Retrial Virus (ARV) tablets and my medical documents. It was a shock to them and in the middle of the semester, they decided to desert the room, claiming that she wanted to infect them with HIV.
They also went on to spread the information to the entire hostel and it was not long before everyone knew about her status.
Nawanyaga went away from the hostel for some time, but pondered about how long she would keep running away from the problem.
“I later returned to hostel and locked myself in the room, read like I had never before and I can assure you, that semester was my best performing semester,” she said.
Miss Y Positives
To prove that her nemesis would never define her status in 2017, she went and contested for Miss Y+, organised by the Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV (UNIPA) and won.
But at the time the auditions were going on, her father passed on.
“It was such a trying time for me and some of my friends thought I would not be able to go for the boot camp. But I asked God to reward me by making me win the pageant because I had gone through a lot already, and thankfully I won.”
The win bolstered Nawanyanga’s confidence to embrace her situation and freely speak out about her status with no self-pity.
“I accepted, loved and believed in myself more since then. And I take my medicine very well because that is who I am and that is what has kept me moving,” she said.
“If you are HIV-negative, please try to keep yourself safe because leading a positive life is not an easy thing. And for those already positive, it is not the end of life. You can be a better person and lead happy positive life.”
Nawanyaga is living a happy life and hopes to start a family as soon as she is sure of it.