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New Vision
Isingoma has put a new face to the HIV fight in Njeru
Conan Businge
October 12, 2009
-- This year, to commemorate the World AIDS Day, December 1, The New Vision, in conjunction with the parliamentary committee on HIV/AIDS, will award individuals who have played a remarkable role in the fight against HIV in their communities. Profiles of the people nominated by the public will be published every day until end of November.

THREE men emerge from a nearby bush carrying an old woman, most likely in her late 60s. After pushing their way through the thick elephant grass that covers the village path, they quickly tread through a nearby cassava garden to a nearby compound.

Without knocking, the men lead the ailing woman to one of the bedrooms. With lightening speed, Monica Isingoma, cuts short my interview to attend to the patient.

Isingoma is a village counsellor and for the last one-and-a-half decades, she has helped women in this condition get back onto their feet, both physically and psychologically.

In one week, this is the third woman to seek help at her home. The old woman has just been on antiretroviral treatment. When she developed a crusty and peeling skin, she halted the treatment, but her health worsened.

Just after her husband died of AIDS in 1991, Isingoma resolved to avenge what she calls "the monstrous disease."

She did not know what had caused the death of her husband. Her in-laws who were close to her husband kept it a secret. But after a while, she discovered that he had succumbed to AIDS. She quickly underwent counselling and medical examination, only to find herself HIV-positive.

"I was scared. I could not imagine how my children were going to live without a parent. Time has been my greatest threat in the last decade," Isingoma explains, wiping tears of joy. "I was scared of dying before raising my children and hitting back at this scourge. But I have won part of the battle. My children are educated and I have saved a number of lives!"

When she joined one of the mobile care clinics for treatment three years after her husband's death, she was dismayed by the kind of advice some counsellors were giving to people living with HIV. She also realised that several HIV-positive people in villages were not receiving treatment because they could not afford the cost.

She began a drama group through which she would sensitise the locals about the scourge. She also joined the National Coalition of Women Living with HIV/AIDS (NACWOLA) and became the chairperson of Njeru branch in Jinja.

One the beneficiaries of the project, Sarah Namazi, explains that the association bought a cow, which it later sold; giving each of the 310 HIV-positive women members, either a cow or a pig, as capital.

"Isingoma has been our 'eyes' in this HIV/AIDS fight. Some of us would be dead, if it was not for her. She helped us gain hope and live financially strong," Namazi explains.

Isingoma has brought a new face to the fight against HIV in her area. As much as she has been stigmatised by her colleagues many times, she believes her payment lies in saving people from being infected.

"I have often been sidelined by my colleagues when there is a reason for us to share the sweats of our struggle. But if I can save the life of one HIV infected or affected person, over time that is enough satisfaction for me."

She also believes God has paid her for her contribution in fighting the scourge. At the time of her husband's death, her eldest children was 10 years; the youngest was one-and-a-half months old. Today, all of them have reached university, save for one who is still in secondary. She also bought a land and built a house on it.

"I always tell other women that losing a husband to HIV or even getting infected is not the end of life. Every HIV-positive person can live for more decades. The secret is in fighting off the stigma," Isingoma says with confidence.

This is the same message she carries to other villages daily. She treks to several villages to meet a number of HIV affected families. For the past 10 years, she has been offering drama senstisation programmes, alongside entrepreneurship programmes; meant to boost the confidence of HIV-positive people.

In 1999, she was already combing villages, sensitising people against the HIV scourge. In her first years of mobilisation, she says, the group grew to 500 people. She proudly says she was raised from dust by St. Francis Health Care Services centre. She, in turn, helped the centre to boost its fight through mobilisation campaigns.

"Several women were in need of HIV treatment and care services, something we discovered when we started the campaigns," she says.

Faustine Ngarambe, St. Francis Health Care Services' director, attests to Isingoma's message. He says the centre had a humble beginning. In 1998, four staff members rented small residential houses in Njeru town. The centre extended services to people living with HIV/AIDS. This was after a situation analysis was conducted in sub-counties of Njeru, Wakisi, Nyanga and part of Najjembe; and several people were found in dire need of HIV/AIDS care services.

Isingoma also has a big team of HIV-positive women who are making beads for sale; cultivating mushrooms and rearing animals. Though her personal mushroom production has dwindled, she explains that most women in this business, using 5x5 papyrus enclosures, earn sh200,000 monthly.

Isingoma has rebuilt the lives of several HIV widows in Njeru and the neighbouring communities. Most of them have built themselves businesses and educated their children up to university.

Isingoma, however, is not content with the fight against HIV in the country. From the local level, she is convinced that corruption is still the biggest hurdle in this fight. "All that we have fought for turns to nothing. Corruption robs HIV affected and infected people of services," she says, sadness written on her face.

However, she is determined to fight on. "It is just the beginning of the battle against HIV," she confidently vows.



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