K is a 36-year-old woman raising four children all by herself. The money from selling sugar canes is her main source of income, and she makes additional money by washing the clothes for her neighbors. She first found out her HIV-positive status when receiving the testing for it in 2008. Previously she couldn’t understand why her children were dying. K’s husband left her due to her HIV status, and here people might even refuse to buy her sugar canes because of fear of being infected with HIV—HIV is still a sensitive issue and a social taboo in Uganda.
Two of K’s children are HIV-positive and another one is waiting for the test to confirm his status. The eight-year-old S is a student of UYWEFA (Uganda Youth and Women’s Effort Fighting AIDS) and shyly kneeled in front of the school director as a sign of gratitude when he visited their place. This is the traditional Ugandan way for greeting and is also practiced when people pay a visit to their mother or grandmother.
The front part of K’s improvised home also serves as the shopping stand for K’s sugarcane business, without electricity or even a proper roof—the roof is leaking now due to the damages caused by the rain. K’s whole family share one single bed with no sheets, as the sheets are already used to cover the cracks of the roof.
K said that, despite having free access to ARVs, the opportunistic complications resulted from HIV treatment are not free of charge. Talking about the consequences of living with HIV, K mentioned she becomes weak, nauseous and sleepy after taking the ARVs, and the side effects can affect her daily activities, but she has no other choice and has to take the ARVs twice a day. The ARVs’ side-effects include weakness, nausea and tiredness, which cause problems to the HIV-infected single mothers as they have to work daily and effectively to support their families.
Lately, K’s children have been experiencing coughing, malaria, flu, and other diseases. K is not able to pay for their treatment, and her money can only afford one meal per day for the family, so she sometimes resorts to herbs for treating their illnesses. This is not without risks and a strong mix can be very dangerous.
We went on to meet F at her charcoal shop in Kazo. She was sitting on the floor when we entered, surrounded by the charcoal, looking exhausted. Her husband also left her when he found she was HIV-positive, in 2000.
F is 45 and has given birth to five children. Two of the children already passed away, two are being raised by F’s sister-in-law as F is not capable of supporting them, and only one child is left with F. The sister-in-law’s place is far and the last time F got to see the two children with her was two years ago. The only child with F is 12 years old, currently receiving free primary education at UYWEFA. F’s children are not HIV-positive but are weak due to the lack of proper nutrition and health care.
Having lost their house to the wind and the rain, F and her child are now homeless. They live in an improvised shack without water, food or electricity. F’s parents are still in a rural village and their living conditions are worse. Going back to her parents is not an option.
Every two weeks, F’s charcoal business earns her 3000 Ugandan shillings, which is less than one US dollar. Even so, because this business is small, F’s products come at a slightly higher price than the ones from large corporations, and customers normally are unwilling to buy F’s charcoal because of the higher price.
The HIV treatment for F is difficult to access, which can only be obtained from a town far away from F’s living place. The transportation fee for F to go there last time was the money F saved for three days without eating anything, and yet, when she arrived there, she was only told the medication was no longer available.