Gloria Nawanyaga is now a third-year Law student of Uganda Christian University (UCU) learnt the hard truth that she was HIV positive. At 11 years, Gloria Nawanyaga, got worried at how frequent her mother took her and her sibling to hospital every Thursday.
“I would ask her why she used to take us to the hospital and we would miss school sometimes. So one day, she took us out, bought us drinks, and then asked us if we knew about HIV/AIDS. I said yes even when I did know anything about it. Then she asked what I knew about HIV. I told her that people with HIV are going to die,” she narrated.
Nawanyaga’s reply scared her mother a great deal. It nearly stopped her from disclosing to them their HIV status.
“She asked again what I would do if I found out that I had the disease. She then realised that I was heartbroken to be told the truth,” Nawanyanga recalls.
Noticing the psychological torture the revelation could cause, her mother decided to take them to Makerere University’s John Hopkins Institute – a research collaboration that focuses on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis. It also took care of children born with HIV and worked at restoring hope in them.
“She thought it was right to take us there so that we would not feel lonely in this world. It was true because when we reached there and saw other kids, we felt some sense of relief – that at least we were not alone.”
After coming to terms with her status, Nawanyaga went back to school. But because she had to always go for medication, she had to skip school every Thursday. One day, a “concerned” teacher asked her why she was missing his classes on Thursday.
“I was scared to divulge my secret but he assured me of confidentiality, claiming that he was a counsellor and I could confide in him. So I opened up about my status but soon I regretted why I did because he went around telling everyone. It did not take long before the entire school knew. I was stigmatized and segregated to the extent that I hated the school,” she said.
As a result of the stigma, Nawanyaga went off her medication for two terms while in Primary Seven because she was afraid of pupils laughing at her and asking if truly she was HIV positive.
“The school required that everyone in P.7 join the boarding section, which to me was real hell because it would further expose me,” she said. “I went off my medication and I severely fell sick.”
“Even when I joined Bethel High School for my Senior One, I continued to fall so sick. I was admitted at Joint Reach Centre (JRC) where UCU, Kampala Campus, is now situated. I lost a lot of weight and became skinny. I threw up everything I ate – including the medicine. My entire skin was filled with a terrible rash. It was bad,” she said in retrospect.
“Some people alleged that I had had an abortion while others thought I was bewitched. I used to cover my entire body because I had black spots all over my body and I didn’t want people to see them,” she says.
Nawanyaga recalls lying on a bed in between two patients, who later died. “I thought I was the next one,” she said.
At school, one of her female teachers got concerned and asked what could be the problem with her because sometimes she used to report with a cannula on her hands.
Due to fear of of stigma, Nawanyaga lied that she had blood cancer. But but it was long before the school administration found out about her status.
“At campus, a female friend approached me to be her roommate; I obliged. One day, her boyfriend went through my suitcase and discovered that there were ARVs and my medical documents. They deserted the room halfway through the semester.”
They went on to spread the information to the entire hostel and it was not long before everyone knew about her status. Nawanyaga went away from the hostel for some time, but pondered about how long she would keep running away from the problem.
“I later returned to hostel and locked myself in the room, read like I had never before and I can assure you, that semester was my best done,” she said.
“One teacher called me to the staffroom and ordered me to kneel down. She accused me of spreading HIV amongst the boys. Some boys started calling me silimu (AIDS). I started hating myself. I hated my parents and blamed them for giving me the disease that had made people hate me so much. I wanted to commit suicide,” Nawanyaga recalls.
She says that at one point, she tried to take her own life by swallowing a poison cell.
The turning point
One day, she calls going to the backyard of their house where she usually went to hide and cry and I asked God to show me her a sign that he really existed so she could not to kill herself.
“As I was buried in tears, I suddenly saw the rubbish that was near me start to burn. I was so scared that I ran away. I never thought of suicide again,” she noted.
Filled with renewed hope, Nawanyaga contested for the 2017 Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV (UNYPA) Miss Y+ pageant and won. While the auditions were going on though, her father passed on.
“It was such a trying time for me. I asked God to reward me with a win for I had gone through a lot already, and thankfully I won,” she said with a smile this time.
It is the crown that she has won up until Saturday, November 23, 2018 when she handed over to the newly crowned Nabanoba Vivian at a glamorous event at Sheraton Hotel.
During her tenure, Nawanyaga has inspired several youth countrywide to stand up and get involved in ending stigma against their peers living with the scourge. She has used her platforms on social media, radio and televisions to champion the cause “End Stigma with Bold Steps.”
As she continues to live a happy life, the outgoing Miss Y+ has some wise words to share.
“If you are HIV Negative, try to keep yourself safe because leading a positive life is not a thing for the faint hearted. And for those already positive, it is not the end of life. You can be a better person and lead happy positive life.”