The Foreign Service Journal - December 2013 - page 101

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
Murder inMombasa.
Despair, Hope, Perseverance
IDS 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 every-
one 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 research-
ers around the globe focusing on the mal-
ady, no cure was found, and treatment
remained quite rudimentary for several
years. There was, however, awareness
that HIV/AIDS was heterosexually trans-
mitted, so changing people’s sexual prac-
tices 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 pub-
licized 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 transmit-
ted disease.
Even so, the relentless HIV/AIDS epi-
demic took a mounting toll. All organiza-
tions 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 stu-
dents 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.
Most of the Mountain Club’s members were Makerere
University graduate students in their 20s; over the next
decade virtually all of themwould die of AIDS.
Similarly, Kampala’s
New Vision
paper reported one day that a woman in
Masaka, about 60 miles south of the capi-
tal, had cured her daughter of the “slims”
(as AIDS was popularly known) by feed-
ing 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.
work was the government’s
campaign. Teaching about AIDS, remov-
ing the sexual stigma and encouraging
condom use and changed sexual behav-
ior 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
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.
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