While many women can bear living with their HIV positive spouses, it is uncommon to find HIV negative men standing by their HIV positive wives. Usually disclosure simply fetches violence and sometimes divorce.
This bitter reality saw Suleiman Sembatya telling the story of loving his wife despite her HIV positive status during the launch of the President Fast Track Initiative to end HIV by 2030, in Kalungu District.
His wife, Sharifa Namaganda, had testified before the gathering that her husband has stood by her since 2005, when she learnt that she was HIV positive.
“We had never tested for HIV not even when my wife was pregnant,” says Sembatya, a resident of Kalungi, Lukaya Town Council in Kalungu District. He adds that when their second born son died mysteriously in 2005, the couple decided to take an HIV test. The test was carried out at Masaka Regional Referral Hospital and the couple was asked to come back for the results the following day.
However, because they did not have enough money for transport, Sembatya told his wife to stay at home and let him pick the results.
“At first, the counsellor found it hard to show me the results but after a few minutes, he told me that I was HIV negative but my wife was positive. The counsellor, realising my shock, was quick to say that it was possible for me to remain negative if my wife and I adhered to guidelines he was to take us through,” Sembatya recalls.
Telling his wife
On his way back home Sembatya says he kept wondering how he was going to break the news to his wife keeping in mind that at this moment he blamed her for cheating on him.
Reaching home, “I delayed to break the news to her until late in the night when she had finished her chores and was relaxed. I also made sure I did not scold her because I knew this would sink her in fear. And being a counsellor, I already knew that HIV patients need to be handled with care, to avoid emotional torture,” he recalls.
He, however, notes that his wife was extremely strong after he had shared the results and attributes this to the fact that they are both Village Health Team Members who counsel HIV positive patients. “She knew that this was not a death sentence and with proper care she could live a meaningful life, he says.
The need to test
“Honestly, I did not know my status, since I had never tested for HIV until my son died but later, I started falling sick,” Namaganda says. The 43-year-old says through her work, she had purposed that the moment she found out that she was HIV positive, she would seek treatment immediately.
In 1998, after being smitten by the beautiful Namaganda, Sembatya says he immediately proposed and asked for ‘nikkah’ (official marriage in the Muslim faith). He just fell in love and did not care about anything else; not even testing.
“Shortly after, we had our first born who did not show signs of illness. However, our second child was sickly and later died and this was a wake up call to go and test,” sembatya says. He cautions all couples to always do the required HIV tests before getting intimate.
Sembatya, through different organisations now spends most of his time counselling patients, especially those in discordant relationships.
Why he endured
The first thing he banked on is the love he had for his wife and easily captured the sweet memories they have shared together “We had lived peacefully together all this time. She had not wronged me and she was a loving and responsible wife,” Sembatya says.
Sembatya also says that his strong faith helped him cope. The staunch Muslim notes that he had already made vows to love his wife in good and bad times. “Leaving her in such a situation where she would need me the most would amount to curses from Allah, who had already protected me from getting the virus in the first place,” he adds.
These two cardinal reasons and the counselling he had gone through saw him resist the wave and later produced HIV negative children under Elimination of Mothers to Child Transmission (EMCT). In fact, according to Namaganda, she was the first HIV positive mother in Kalungu District to give birth to an HIV negative baby in 2006.
After his wife was enrolled on treatment, the couple was counselled. Vincent Basajja, the community liaison officer at Medical Research Council (MRC) assured him that he could stay HIV negative if he followed the precautions given.
Among them he recalls; “I was told that if my wife adheres to drugs, her viral load would get suppressed and lessen my chances of contracting the virus. I was also cautioned against engaging in extramarital sex thinking that I am immune to the virus.”
And it is these rules, coupled with love and faith that has seen them live for close to 13 years without Sembatya getting the virus.