It took Halima Nakato two years to accept a second relationship proposal after her first boyfriend left the country for greener pastures.
All this time, she had been doing HIV tests to ensure she was safe. But when she started a new relationship, her partner was not comfortable going for the tests despite the encouragement. After some time, she gained some trust and started getting intimate with him without protection. But months into the new relationship, she realised her boyfriend was dating several girls at the same time.
Her attempt at having a conversation on where their relationship was headed always met resistance. Instead, he always assured her that he was still a young man and there were many beautiful girls he could marry.
“I stayed faithful hoping he would change. Instead, he got another girlfriend and they started living together. Yet he would still come to me saying he does not love her,” recalls Nakato.
After months of disagreements, Nakato realised the relationship was not taking shape and in October 2016, she ended it. She wanted to reflect on her life and start afresh in the New Year.
The first signs
However, a year later, she developed a strong cough and rash all over her body which did not respond to medication from her clinician. This forced her to go back to her doctor and asked if they could do a thorough blood count which included testing for HIV. She did not know what to expect. Her mind paced as she waited for the results. Minutes turned into hours of waiting and when the doctor finally returned, you could hear a pin drop. From the doctor’s sad demeanor, Nakato knew all was not well.
This was on November 28, 2017, she recalls. She had not been in any relationship for a year after breaking up with her second boyfriend. And here she was with laboratory results showing she was HIV positive.
However, she picked the courage faster and instead told her doctor she did not want sympathy but rather advice on how she was going to start her antiretroviral (ARVs) drugs. “My doctor was scared to share the results after the lab tests. I could see it. He did not know how to break the news because he had been my doctor for a long time and knew how I loved my life. But I told him I did not want sympathy. All I wanted was to start my medication,” she remembers.
The doctor then asked her to visit Mildmay Health Centre for further counselling and medical support. And two days later, she set out for the Lweza-based health facility on Entebbe Road where they tested her again and confirmed her HIV status and started her on Septrin. She was then asked to return after two weeks.
“I went back on December 14 and I was told my CD4 count was two (As HIV infection progresses, the number of these cells declines. When the CD4 count drops below 200 due to advanced HIV, a person is diagnosed with Aids. A normal range for CD4 cells is about 500-1,500). They said my immune system was too low. My body was too weak. They had to put me on ARVs,” a teary Nakato narrates.
Though she was courageous enough to accept the situation, she did not immediately inform her family. Only her doctor and the boda boda rider who had taken her to the hospital and ended up being her next of kin knew about it. The hospital administration demanded her to have a relative before she could get the medicine.
While on medication, she continued going to work (selling hair weaves) but on January 5, Nakato got a mental breakdown. She started undressing publicly. Luckily, she had been living with her brother Abdu Kintu who then called their uncle to come to their rescue.
She was taken to Butabika Hospital. She, however, objected to this insisting on being taken to Mildmay instead. Her family did not understand why until she presented them with documents showing her HIV status. Her uncle then went to Mildmay to verify. Nakato was however, retained at the Luzira-based mental hospital for two weeks until she stabilised.
Apart from her uncle and Kintu who were supportive, her HIV news shocked her family with many rejecting the 28-year-old. “I got a mental problem in January. My young brother would tie my hands with ropes because I was fighting a lot. My family stigmatised me a lot when they learnt about my HIV status. They would say I was going to die. Some refused to come to hospital to see me,” she recalls.
The stigma has persisted even today, according to Kintu.
“Many of our family members rejected her when they learnt of her HIV status. It was worse when she started being open about her status. They do not want to know. I, however, cannot leave her alone even if all turn their back on her. I will be there to support her,” Kintu says.
It is these experiences that have even made Nakato stronger; choosing to follow her conscience than people’s views about her status. For example, it was while in hospital that Nakato’s urge to preach about HIV/AIDs increased. “This is the time I have to talk about HIV and tell the world it is real and it kills,” she told herself while still on the hospital bed.
Her motivation arose from her first visit to Mildmay when she found children as young as three years taking ARVs. This, she adds, hurt her because mother to child HIV transmission can be prevented if mothers are sensitised before the children are born.
And when she normalised and had her phone back, Nakato reached out to her friends telling them what had happened. However, some friends thought she had been bewitched, which Nakato dismissed.
“I want to help those who are in denial. Many who learn about their HIV/AIDS status hate themselves, want to commit suicide, or some do not want to open up. My experience is that I needed someone to tell and my friends have been incredibly supportive. I do not care about the negative talk. I care that a soul will listen and be saved,” Nakato asserts.
She appeals to the community to stop branding those who have come out to share their status openly as prostitutes and encourages the public to go for testing and not to lose their hope in case they find out that they are HIV positive.
“Do not judge people with your eyes. Go for testing before you get sexually intimate with anyone. But if you have found out that you are HIV positive, it is not the end of life. Accept it. I am going to make four months on my medication. I have regained weight and I am stronger. I have plans that one day I will have somebody I love and give birth to an HIV negative baby,” Nakato says.
She adds: “I take my ARVS religiously. I call them sweets because they have given me a second chance to life. It does not matter where I am; if it is time to swallow the drugs, I will pick them from my bag and take them.”