The scourge of HIV/AIDS came upon Uganda at a time when we were entering our most sexually active years and we were not ready. Our society practiced a lot of sex behind closed doors but it was not a subject we discussed openly except perhaps in bars when we were inebriated enough to throw caution and modesty out the window. Even then when we discussed sexual activity it was never about the many diseases it could cause but rather the many pleasures it could induce. It was unheard of to speak to your family about sex and in some extreme cases there were married couples who had sex regularly but never discussed it at all - if you can imagine that.
The dilemma now: Here was an illness that you could not talk about without referring to sex in one form or another. If the illness manifested itself, then the next order of the conversation was 'Who else do you think she/he was sleeping with.' I think this was the proper beginning of 'outing' people in a very shameless way in Uganda. Suddenly everyone was interested in who was sleeping with who and not for entertainment but for the purpose of checking if the network ended directly under your pillow. Now you must understand that contracting HIV in the 80s and 90s was a death sentence. There were no ARVs to keep you around for a bit or help you manage the illness. You were simply dead. So unfortunately when the network ended under your pillow most people were not inclined to step up and own the virus. These were the years that created heroes of men like Maj. Ruranga Rubaramira because he stepped up in front of cameras and microphones and said 'I am living positively.'
There were more cowards than Rurangas and then there were those who were just outrightly evil and decided that they would not go alone and must take as many others as they could. So during the day everyone spoke of abstaining from sex but in the shadows men and women suspended reality and continued their multi-faced sex life, even when they knew they were infected. Fear and shame nearly decimated a whole generation that had grown up in a quietly permissive sex culture. The unspoken truth about sexual relations in some communities in Uganda can be summarized as: Anything goes as long as no one knows.' HIV/AIDS apart from killing young productive people in my time also exposed bizarre sexual patterns in our communities. And unlike Ebola which is easy to stop because victims are willing to tell how they got it, with HIV more than likely the only person the victim would blame for their ailment was the spouse. So any other carriers went undetected. The hypocrisy and pretentiousness of our two-faced culture came back to bite us.
People who died of AIDS were said to have died 'after a long illness' to protect their children, spouses, parents, and extended families from the stigma that came with contracting the disease. Those who were well off left the country for medical exile to places where they could be treated but also to escape the stigma. Those that stayed were hidden from sight until the 'long illness' had done its job. The industry of 'Hope' survived, grew and got fattened off this misery. People flocked in hundreds to witchcraft and to Church or both just in case the other did not work. Pastors out did each other in 'curing' the illness though prayer. Churches mushroomed around the illness as did the shrines of medicine men; yet at the height of this crisis we buried someone we knew nearly every week.
As science fought back helped along by mavericks like Maj. Ruranga, society began to change but mostly in safe, superficial ways. It became an ordinary event to watch a nurse on public television rolling a condom down a phallus shaped object. No one giggled anymore as this was serious business upon which our very lives depended. Eventually ARVs arrived on the scene and things stabilized , the death rate came down. Ugandans fought the war against HIV/AIDS in their peculiar way and many survived but through it all, some Ugandan communities continued to avidly honor their sexually permissive culture.
At 50 I know that old habits die hard and it takes more than a pandemic of great proportions for ingrained behavior and culture to change.