Despair, Hope, Perseverance



AIDS cut a wide swath through Uganda and much of Africa in the late 1980s. Newspapers were filled with notices of deaths “after a short illness,” but everyone knew the code. Fueling the panic, the disease mainly struck down those in the prime of life, many of them from the burgeoning middle class.

Even with dozens of medical researchers around the globe focusing on the malady, no cure was found, and treatment remained quite rudimentary for several years. There was, however, awareness that HIV/AIDS was heterosexually transmitted, so changing people’s sexual practices would diminish the infection rate.

With that in mind, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s government launched a massive public campaign. In one memorable television clip, the minister of health demonstrated condom use in the Kampala city market by putting one on a banana. The health ministry also publicized the slogan “zero grazing,” using the metaphor of a cow tied to a post that could only eat in a circle (a zero).

Other initiatives included a network of counseling centers for the infected and their families, and advertising campaigns to diminish the shame attached to the epidemic’s origins as a sexually transmitted disease.

Even so, the relentless HIV/AIDS epidemic took a mounting toll. All organizations were hard hit. The Ugandan colonel in charge of army training confided to me that he had to have 10 soldiers tested for AIDS to find two who were not infected and thus eligible for U.S. training.

Along with several Embassy Kampala colleagues, I had joined the Mountain Club of Uganda for hiking expeditions to nearby rock faces and to the Mountains of the Moon. Most of the club’s members were Makerere University graduate students in their 20s; over the next decade virtually all of them would die of AIDS.

Most of the Mountain Club’s members were Makerere University graduate students in their 20s; over the next decade virtually all of them would die of AIDS.

Between 1987 and 1990 alone, at least seven Foreign Service Nationals at the embassy died of the disease, along with a dozen local guards. Local staff persuaded the administrative officer to rework their benefits package so that at death, an employee’s male relatives (acting in accordance with tribal custom) could not seize his or her benefits, to the detriment of the spouse and children.

Yet throughout this period, hope flourished—however unfounded. East African newspapers made much of a Kenyan scientist’s claim that he had discovered a cure, proudly announcing that Africa was in the forefront of science. Alas, clinical trials showed the remedy was marginally useful, at best.

Similarly, Kampala’s New Vision newspaper reported one day that a woman in Masaka, about 60 miles south of the capital, had cured her daughter of the “slims” (as AIDS was popularly known) by feeding her clay from her backyard. Hundreds of people converged on the site, quickly turning it into a deep pit.

I asked several of my contacts about this, expecting to find them skeptical. But they were believers. As one told me: “Eating it might work; if not, it’s just dirt. I am going this afternoon.” Of course, it did not work, and that story soon faded away, as well.

What did work was the government’s campaign. Teaching about AIDS, removing the sexual stigma and encouraging condom use and changed sexual behavior reduced the infection rate enough to hold the line until anti-retroviral medicines became available. Through the 1990s, Uganda was hailed as having the best response to the disease on the continent.

Today the country is still coping with HIV/AIDS, and has recently seen an uptick in the infection rate. But compared with 30 years ago, its society is thriving and its economy is prospering.

Still, as mankind observes yet another World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, one can’t help wondering how much further along Uganda might be if it had not lost tens of thousands of its most productive citizens far too early in life.

Robert Gribbin was the DCM in Kampala from 1988 to 1991. Later he served as ambassador to the Central African Republic and to Rwanda. He is the author of a memoir titled In the Aftermath of Genocide: The U.S. Role in Rwanda and two novels, State of Decay and Murder in Mombasa.