When I first saw Grace Nakasana during a training in Soroti early this year, I could tell all was not well with her. She hardly smiled. And when she did, it was brief.
Later, I traced her at her home in Tubur sub-county, about 30kms away from Soroti town, where she narrated a shocking ordeal. Nakasana had been raped by 12 men at different times and is now living with HIV and encouraging fellow women to stand strong.
Nakasana was born in a humble family and went through a difficult time as a child.
"My mother had leprosy, so my father got another wife, who used to mistreat me. Everyone called me a curse because of my mother's condition. I barely had clothes to wear," she narrates.
One day Nakasana left home with the intention of committing suicide on the railway line.
"On my way, I met a man who asked me why I was crying. When I told him my story, he told me to become his wife. That is how I met the father of my 12 children," she explains.
She says she was 15 at that time. Nakasana says her father did not bother to look for her, while her mother was confined to a leprosy centre.
"I lost my virginity in so much pain. I remember bleeding for weeks. I used to sit in salty warm water to nurse the wounds. I would cry and bite on a cloth as I sat in the water.
"Fortunately, my husband was an alcoholic and was barely interested in sex. This gave me enough time to heal," says Nakasana.
Later, she left Tubur and settled in Soroti town to sell pancakes so as to raise money to take care of the family, since her husband had abandoned his responsibilities.
One evening in 1989, Nakasana, then 35 years old and her 17-year-old son, were seated outside her house at the Baptist Church. She had been given the house by the church.
Suddenly, three armed men attacked them and demanded for money. Nakasana told her son to go inside the house and get money. One of the men followed the boy into the house and a few minutes later, she heard a gunshot.
Before she could shout fo help, the other two men started beating her and dragged her into a nearby bush.
"One man stepped on my arms, as the other spread my legs apart. They raped me in turns," she narrates.
The man who had followed her son into the house also joined them and told them to kill her.
"However, another said they should not kill me because I had to bury my son," she says. Nakasana says, her neighbours later found her in the bush in a state of shock and took her home. It is until she reached her house that she realised her son had been killed. Her neighbours told her the bandits were rebels protesting the NRM rule. Nakasana says she did not tell anyone what had happened to her.
Gang raped again:
In March 1990, Nakasana suffered another horrible gang rape, this time by five soldiers. Because of her childhood experience, she was compassionate to street children.
She would go to the streets in the evening, gather them and take them to sleep at the church. One day, as she went to pick them at about 7:00pm, she found six armed men, who demanded for sex. "I tried to run away, but they grabbed me and pushed me to the ground. They raped me in turns. One of them refused to take part in the rape and walked away."
"I became unconscious and later woke up in Soroti Hospital. The nurses were hostile to me. They said I deserved it since I was a Muntu like Museveni. But one nurse called sister Night, gave me certain herbs. The herbs smelt bad and whenever I applied them, I felt a lot of pain. But I had no option," she explains. Two weeks later, Nakasana returned home to her husband, but she did not tell him about the ordeal.
Raped for the third time:
Life was hard for Nakasana, but she thought it could not get any worse. In September 1993, Nakasana's friend, who was deteriorating due to AIDS in Soroti Hospital, asked her to look for her family in Majengo.
She found three girls but as the three were returning to hospital, they met four rebels near the Soroti Flats, a quiet neighborhood. The men asked where they were going and one girl rebuked them. They grabbed the girls, threw them down and started raping them.
"One of the girls died. After the ordeal, one rebel alleged that I was the one who rebuked them and ordered that i be punished. One of the rapists pushed a pipe, I think it was a bicycle pump, through my private parts. It left me with a nasty wound and I ended up at Soroti Hospital. This time, the nurses said I was it was me who was cursed." Nakasana then returned to her village and started nursing the wound with warm water and salt.
Diagnosed with HIV:
A few years later, Nakasana's daughter was diagnosed HIVpositive and died less than a year later, leaving behind a new-born baby. Luckily, the child was negative and is still in Nakasana's care. Soon after, Nakasana's health also started deteriorating. In 2002, she tested and was found HIVpositive. "I nearly ran mad. I wanted to kill something or someone!" says Nakasana. Her counsellor, Joseph Eyawu, says it took him a while to convince Nakasana that there was hope after HIV.
When her husband heard of her HIV status, he sent her away from the home. "I lived in an anthill. It was a big anthill, so I dug a hole in it. One of my daughters would stealthily bring me food," says Nakasana. It was her son who returned from Jinja to force his father to allow her to go back home.
"With two other HIV-positive women, we would walk over 30km to Soroti town to get ARVs. One of the women brought roasted cassava, the other a bed-sheet and I carried drinking water," she recalls.
Nakasana has today overcome the stigma with the help of Teso Peace Women Activists, an NGO. She runs a small eating joint in Tubur, Soroti. She says she has chosen love over hate.