On a sultry Sunday afternoon, I set out to Katooke Village in Wakiso District to meet Barbara Kemigisa. A small girl, lovely and welcoming, picked me from the road to her house. She was lovely and welcoming.
I noticed the chair Kemigisa had offered me was an unusual one. In a corner next to the TV stand was another artifact, like the chair I sat in, made of bottles bound by wire into what looked like a basket. On each bottle is written a 1x1 prescription. She noticed my eyes wondering there, she quickly explained: “My husband makes those. You too can place an order for what you want.”
She pulled out her phone and showed me some of the pictures from her project; beds, chairs, flower vases, dustbins and baskets, all made from empty ARVs tins.
Kemigisa is the founder of Pill Power Uganda, a project that has for six months identified people living with HIV/Aids, training them to recycle empty ARVs tins into useful objects. She empowers these people to use what they have to earn and also use the artifacts as sensitising tools because many people living negatively cannot imagine what it is like taking the medicines every day. “So, the more reason they need to take care of their lives.
It is also a way of encouraging young people to take their ARVs because our lives depend on them. It has helped their adherence to the drug and enabled them earn some money because we train them to make the artifacts or buy the empty tins from them,” she explains.
In two years time, she aims at impacting over 1,000 people living with HIV but thinks the number can be bigger with funding. “With Shs1million, you can start a Pill Power unit because each unit consists of 10 young people who, after training, must each look for and encourage 10 more individuals living positively,” Kemigisa says.
Why HIV crusader?
At 31, Kemigisa is a counsellor, HIV crusader and spokesperson for many young or organisations of people in Uganda living with HIV. She has appeared on Africa channel, Voice of America and currently does counselling with Makerere University Business School (MUBS).
Molested by her uncles at a tender age, Kemigisa developed a risky sexual by the time she was a teenager. “My parents separated when I was four years old, so, I stayed with my grandmother in Fort Portal. At six, I was molested by my uncles. They gave me pancakes for sex and asked me not to tell anyone.”
The molestation continued until she was 11 years old, when she came to stay with her father in Kampala in 1997. She completed her primary education and joined an all girls’ secondary school but was expelled for breaking a dormitory window in Senior Two.
She was taken back to Fort Portal to study from there but ended up joining peer groups that would drink alcohol, go to night clubs and sleep around with older men. During her Senior Three third term in 2003, she conceived.
“Everyone at school knew I was pregnant except me. I thought I had just gained weight. A relative came to school and told me my father was sick so I went to the hospital and I saw a nurse palpate (examine by touching) my stomach,” she recalls.
At hospital, no one told her what was happening. “A doctor gave me an injection and after a few minutes, I felt a lot of pain but did not know what it was. It is now that I understand they were labour pains. I heard the baby make a weak cry then it died.”
A week later, she went back to school but there was a lot of stigma from teachers and students. She wanted to find a reason to be away from school so she burnt her mattress. She was suspended and told to return to sit for her final Senior Four exams.
For Advanced Level, Kemigisa went to a strict Muslim school in Kampala and was determined to be better. Unfortunately, her parents did not let go of her bad girl reputation. She nonetheless completed Senior Six but during her vacation, she got very sick and was taken to hospital. Her parents suspected she was pregnant. They were wrong.
When she conceived soon after she was discharged, she tested HIV positive at her first antenatal visit. “I had to start my ARVs immediately not to infect my baby. I wanted to disclose my status to my father but he did not listen so I just told him I wanted to leave home.”
Kemigisa moved in with a friend and struggled to make ends meet. Sometimes, she went off her medicine because she did not have food. Some of the men who approached her for sex ended up helping her in gratitude for her disclosing to them that she was HIV positive. Kemigisa eventually went to live with his uncle in Kisaasi with whom she says she found peace at last. “At last I had a family that loved and cared for me,” she recounts.
Many frustrated youth living with HIV came to Infectious Disease Institute. She told them her story to encourage them. She was taken on by the institute and was trained to counsel youths. “On June 3, 2009, I went into labour, gave birth to a baby without HIV but because I could not afford formula, I breastfed her. At seven months, my baby tested HIV positive and had to start on ARVs immediately,” she recalls with teary eyes.
Bitter for not saving her child from the virus, Kemigisa wanted to disclose her status to her relatives and it was a great relief for her that the father to her child was negative after several tests. “I decided to go public so people could be more careful with their lives. I would take my ARVs in the taxi, and wear earrings or T-shirts that disclosed my status,” she says.
I rented a small room in Kisaasi, and sent my baby to my mother during school time because the schools in the village were cheaper. I connected to various organisations that campaign against HIV, got mentors such as Pablo (Kenneth Kimuli, the comedian) and was eventually adopted by Prof Wasswa Balunywa, Vice Chancellor of Makerere University Business School. “These people have empowered me to lead a happy life,” she says.
Finding unconditional love
Kemigisa got married on November 28, 2015, at Watoto church. She met Meziah Michael Katabazi in 2014 as a neighbour, friend and church mate. He says; “I wanted to be more than a friend to her but she had told me it would not be possible because she was HIV positive and had a baby. But I had no problem with this even though I am negative; she had all the qualities I wanted in a woman.”
When his father, a pastor, heard about them, he was cross with his son. “‘How do you know an avocado is rotten but go ahead and eat it?’ he asked. I told him I loved her and was ready to stand by her. If she was able to tell me she was positive before we were married, I was confident she would protect me and the entire family,” narrates Katabazi.
Many other people discouraged him, with the exception of a few supportive siblings and an aunt. Katabazi was determined. His father did not attend the introduction or wedding ceremonies. “His father asked me why I wanted to kill her son,” Kemigisa recalls. Some of his relatives attended their ceremonies but his father.
The couple have been together for two years now and have a healthy HIV negative seven-month-old baby. Kemigisa eats a balanced diet and takes her ARVs daily and on time to keep her viral load undetectable. This way, she protects her husband from acquiring the virus.