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Summer 2013

Fighting AIDS in Uganda

On a sunny day nearly 10 years ago, Barbara Lawson of San Francisco wandered through a residential neighborhood in Kampala, Uganda, with a local colleague. As they walked, she noticed that most of the people she saw were either elderly or children. When she remarked about it to her companion, she was told that “basically a generation had been wiped out by AIDS” and that now the area was “a neighborhood of grandparents and their grandchildren. The thirty- and forty-year-olds are gone.”

An image of a young boy

The AIDS Epidemic

In the early 2000s, more than 530,000 Ugandans were diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, and millions more throughout the African continent were infected. Men, women, and children were fighting a desperate battle to protect their loved ones from the infectious plague surrounding them. The AIDS epidemic “was a crisis that couldn’t be ignored,” says Lawson. “Every sector of society needed to pay attention and do something about it.”

Pangaea Global AIDS Foundation seemed to agree with Lawson’s call to action. Pangaea teamed up with Pfizer Inc., the world’s largest research-based pharmaceutical company, to plan and construct a health clinic based at Makerere University in Kampala. In 2001, Lawson was hired at the start of the project as the senior program director for the Infectious Diseases Institute.

Pushing for Change

The concept for the clinic was first introduced when local Ugandan doctors met with doctors from North America to find a solution for the escalating epidemic in Uganda. Then, with funding from Pfizer and with administrative and innovative experts from Pangaea, Lawson and her coworkers were able to put the project into action.

Even before construction on the clinic began, Lawson and other workers implemented programs to improve health care in Africa. North American doctors flew in to help train local doctors, who simply needed to be taught how to treat HIV, AIDS, and other infectious diseases. The newly trained physicians then returned to their own cities and communities to impart their acquired knowledge to others.

Dr. Nelson Sewankambo of Uganda was one of the key players in implementing this program. “Our hope,” he says of the project, “is that the people we have trained will themselves become trainers. If we can train a hundred, then they will train thousands and that will help. If we can give them the skills and resources needed, they will start clinics throughout Africa providing quality care.” The monumental effort by the Ugandan people was beginning to pay off.

In 2001, the Infectious Diseases Institute began a five-year project to construct the clinic. The personnel that were hired to build and manage the clinic were Ugandan, including the doctors and administrative staff who now run the clinic. “I can’t say enough great things about them,” Lawson says. Although the institute helped Ugandans fight their growing mortality rates, the patients weren’t the only ones whose lives were changed by the project. “I can’t think of a single person who came away unchanged,” says Chuck Wilson, speaking of his fellow project coordinators.

Adapting to Ugandan Culture

While thinking of the poverty and epidemics sweeping third-world countries like Uganda, it may be easy for some in wealthier nations to view the people living there as helpless and to approach service efforts with the idea of being saviors to the less fortunate. However, this mindset of being a “hero” is often harmful instead of helpful. And while the Ugandans needed help from other countries, they were far from helpless.

“Of all of the inputs that went into this project,” Wilson says, “the only ones in which the North Americans came with a sense of dominance were finance and probably technology. But that was only 30% of the equation; 70% of the equation was Ugandan contribution. This was much more of a partnership than many originally conceived it to be.” The Ugandans needed help, but they were active participants in their own rescue mission.

Wilson also points out that people trying to help on the project either adapted to the gentler, slower way of life in Uganda or found themselves unable to contribute. One example of this need to adapt was in the use of technology for the Infectious Diseases Institute. Wanting the clinic to be a cutting edge facility, some members of the team from New York decided to make a presentation for the Ugandans to explain how to use technology in the clinic, with the goal of a paperless clinical system. They wanted doctors to use handheld devices to keep track of diagnoses and treatments of patients. This information would be communicated wirelessly to a main database.

Unfortunately, the plan wouldn’t work for the Ugandans. “Ugandans are unfailingly polite,” explained Wilson. They graciously agreed to see the presentation, despite their skepticism. When the MIT team welcomed the group and pushed the button on the computer to begin the PowerPoint presentation, something happened that was completely unusual for the New Yorkers but was not unusual at all for the Ugandans: a daily massive power surge sent a bolt of energy down the electrical wires. The laptop began emitting smoke and the lens on the slide projector shattered, effectively ending the presentation. “Everybody burst out laughing,” says Wilson, “because it was just such a great, concrete way of saying, ‘bad idea!’” The Westerners realized that the simpler way of life in Uganda called for a simpler system.

Moving Forward

Uganda continues to fight the AIDS epidemic in the trenches. When the Infectious Diseases Institute was completed, Makerere University bought it from Pangaea. Today it stands as a locally owned and operated clinic that gives hope to thousands of Africans, both inside and outside of Uganda, who suffer from AIDS. The tireless efforts to better the lives of their citizens continue on. “They are people of deep faith who have survived things we could never get through,” Lawson says. With continued help from people all around the world, Uganda continues to thrive and fight for its own health and happiness.

[Sidebar] BeadforLife: Continuing the Fight

The Infectious Diseases Institute is not the only example of the tireless strivings of Ugandans to create a better life for their children. BeadforLife is an organization that helps impoverished women struggling to support their children. It began in September 2004 by Torkin Wakefield, Ginny Jordan, and Devin Hibbard.

While walking through the streets of Uganda, the trio came across a woman, beaten and poor, who was sitting in the sweltering sun, rolling paper into beads for necklaces. Intrigued, they stopped to speak with her and learned that her name was Millie Grace Akina. Akina and her children had fled from northern Uganda to Kampala in an effort to protect themselves from the Lord’s Resistance Army, a militant group that kidnapped youth to use as child soldiers. By working in the rock quarries together, the family made less than a dollar a day—just enough for a single meal. So Akina was making and selling the paper jewelry to try to eke out more income.

The three Americans began to sell paper jewelry in the United States to bring attention to the plight of Ugandan women like Akina and to help support them. The organization now assists women in making and selling necklaces all across the world and has helped to build schools, homes, and clinics for their families.

According to their mission statement, “BeadforLife creates sustainable opportunities for women to lift their families out of extreme poverty by connecting people worldwide in a circle of exchange that enriches everyone.” Although these women have been both literally and figuratively beaten and bruised, they rally to protect their families and create a better life for their children.

The people of Uganda are truly an inspiration. They may have different struggles than people of other nations, but they are hardworking, hopeful, and good. As Lawson says, “No matter where you go, mothers are mothers. Parents want a better life for their children.”

Spotify Playlist:

“Waka Waka”—Shakira
“Baba Yetu”—Christopher Tin
“The Drum Song”—Adjoa Skinner