So the first question was: Are you going to keep quiet or are you going to tell someone?
It took 20 minutes for me to disclose. When I was in the counselor’s room, the counselor gave me the results in a stigmatizing way. He said, “Man of God, what are you going to do?”
And although it was a sort of mocking question, it helped me to begin actually thinking about what I was going to do, because I was not prepared that I’m going to get an HIV-positive result. But when he asked me that question, it provoked systematic thinking about what I was going to do.
And the 20 minutes I’m telling you are between the testing center and my theological college where I was lecturing. I had to make a decision, say, by the time I step on my college campus, I should be able to say, “I have been in this testing center. This is what happened. I need your support. I need your prayers.” And that’s what happened.
I disclosed to my theological lecturers first. Then went to my class; I disclosed. I went to my family: disclosed. I went to my church and disclosed. So the circle was continuing to expand. From 1992 I was disclosing, like, in ripples, you know? Expanding my circle, until the world now knew there was someone who is in Uganda who is a religious leader and who is HIV-positive.
There are those who were very supportive, and saying, “Wow! It’s good. We’ve got a prophetic voice among us.” But there were others who were hesitant, and say, “Okay, if he has got HIV, why is he washing that linen in public? He should not bring disgrace to the church. He should not, you know, look for sympathy when God is punishing him for his sexual sins.”
And of course there was another group that didn’t know what to make about me. If they found people who were supporting they would join; if they found those who were back-biting, they would join. So it was a mixed group.
Everywhere I went I got a mixed reaction. In the family, for example, there were people who were not so sure how to handle a positive person. In 1995, when I said I wanted to marry, again, they said, “Well, now, how do we handle this? This man is dying soon, now he’s bringing a bride. So when he dies, who will take care of the bride?” You know, so there were reactions.
But the stigma that I hear, about people being stoned, people being harassed, people being thrown out of jobs: that’s not my experience. The only nasty experience I had, I think, was when my PhD admission at the University at Cardiff was turned down by some people who had previously been willing to support me. But when they heard I’m positive I think they said, “Will he finish the PhD program? Probably he is going to waste our money.”
What I am lucky about, and I thank God about, was that the supportive and caring group was far bigger than the negative group. And that helped me to come to terms, to accept my situation, and to turn my adversity into service for others.
I learned that I was HIV-positive in 1992. My wife suddenly got ill, and within a week she was dead. And then later on I was told that my wife could have died of an AIDS-related illness: pneumonia, to be specific. And so I was advised to go for an HIV-test, and the test confirmed my worst fears. I was HIV-positive.
I got a lot of family support. My– the family of my late wife; my daughter, Patience; and my brothers and sisters. My mom. And then my church. My church was very, very supportive, including my bishop. So I was so lucky that I had a support network.
And then, Uganda was one of the first countries to admit that they had a problem, so we had care groups. And then Uganda was also chosen to do pilot treatment programs in 1998, and I got a friend who was willing to look for treatment for me, and I started ARVs in 1998, when actually I was told that I’m remaining with six months to die.
It’s a miracle. People say they don’t see miracles, but probably it’s because they don’t have their eyes to the miracles. Yeah. There is nothing that happens to me which God is not aware of, and there are many other things that God had helped me overcome. And that even HIV, He was going to walk the journey with me.
I’m doing very okay. My CD4 count is 1,300. My viral load is undetectable. I no longer have symptoms and attacks every now and then. Now I’m doing my PhD, which was refused in ‘92.
I’m conscious that there will be a time when these ARVs are not working. So I’m beginning also preparing for my end of life issues, and looking at beyond. But not spending so much time there.
I love music, so I sing a lot. I sing, I relax. I play football. And I read. I don’t think of… I could feel alone, but I can’t feel lonely. But in terms of when your energies are down: it happens with too much work. Like now, I move in 60 countries in the world, supporting people here, jumping one plane to another. And you feel, yeah, there is a time when you really are not looking after yourself well. You are spending so much time on others than yourself.
And so you go down in the bed and say, “Am I doing the right thing? Could I have done it better? How does my family feel?” So there are those moments where you are alone and you are thinking, is there a way of doing it better? But now what I am doing is to spend more time training young people to say, “Gideon has done his part, we need more Gideons, and this is my experience. These are the skills. These are the courses. Let’s work together.” So that by 2015 I really want to scale down in what I’m doing.
I will go farming. I want to raise cows, I want to grow bananas – in Uganda we grow bananas. Now I have land. I will do that.
I don’t think a lot about my HIV. I think a lot about how we are going to stop the new infections among the generation behind me. How do we help those who are positive? How do we stop new infections among mothers and their children? And how do we improve care of those who are positive?
This time in my life is a time of reflection, is a time of looking at HIV deeper and saying, “Is it really a disease, or is it a symptom of things that have gone wrong in the way we relate with one another? In the way we trade with one another? In the way we love one another? In the way we relate as international– as countries, as communities, as nations? Why is it that 12% of the world population has 80% of the AIDS problem? Why? Why? Why is it that women – African women – carry 80% of all the virus found in women in all the world? Why? Why is Africa having 90% of all the orphans related to AIDS around the world?
So I am at that question where, when I hear my fellow religious leaders, you know, talking about morality and sexual morality, I say, “Is there a way we can expand the moral debate to move beyond sex to include justice issues?”
Not to look at people who are ‘sinners,’ but who are being sinned against that they don’t have access, actually, to information when they need it. They don’t have appropriate skills on how to protect themselves or to treat themselves or to care for themselves when they need it. That when they want to have an HIV test, or a counselor, or a treatment for a certain opportunistic infection, or a prophylaxis after rape, they can’t– they can’t access it. It’s nowhere anywhere.
So is there a way – as countries, as communities, but also from the religious heart – a spiritual obligation to say, “We have the science to prevent new infections. We have the science to disorganize the virus inside the body. We have the science to break the transmission chain from mother to child. Why, then, are our people still getting infected, and why are people dying of preventable diseases?”
So that is the state where I am, and fortunately, I am getting some religious leaders who feel like me.