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Originally published in Redbook Magazine, December 2000
"You were the most beautiful baby anyone had ever seen," Florence reads out loud. It's clear she knows these words by heart. "People came up to me on the street to admire you. Of course, you looked just like your daddy."
Florence knows the story so well because it's hers, and she'll tell you straight out why she has written it. "I probably won't live to see my children grow up. This book will be there when I'm not."
The slim volume she's reading from is called a memory book. It's her way of leaving her children with a permanent record of who she is, of teaching them values to live by that she hopes win keep them safe and strong.
On a continent where some 25 minion people are infected with the AIDS virus, Florence Nagawa is just one of hundreds of thousands of HIV-positive women in the East African country of Uganda. Although she is only 26 years old and seems to be blooming with health and vitality, that could all change tomorrow. Three years ago, she watched Peter, here 36-year-old husband and Ronald and Jackie's father, quickly waste away from AIDS. She does what she can to take care of her health, but she's also realistic. She knows that the life expectancy of poor women like herself -- women for whom expensive antiviral drugs are not an option -- is not even 30. One thing is certain: Short of a miracle, she win not live to dance at her daughter's wedding or hold her grandchildren on her lap.
Even in her simple cotton dress, she's a strikingly beautiful woman -- slim, with a broad, easy smile and glowing skin. Although there's seldom money for more than the bare necessities for her family, on the particular day Florence has dressed her children in their best clothes for the arrival of a visitor and has set out a tray of bottled sodas and four cookies, a real treat. On the upholstered chair that is her pride and joy -- in a village here she lives, most people sit on woven mats or wooden stools - she has carefully arranged a homemade crocheted doily; another, small doily is draped over the radio.
She turns the page in her book and smiles at a photograph of Ronald as a toddler, wearing short pants and standing unsteadily as his mother and father look on. "That was the day you took your first step,'' she says. "So I did this," she says, reaching a slim hand to her breast and squeezing it. "In our tradition, when a baby takes a first step, you leave a drop of your milk on the spot so that the baby never fans down again.
"Here I am holding you," she continues, pointing to another photograph. "Here I am in school. Here's your grandmother. Oh, look now -- here's your daddy -- what a handsome man he was!"
She turns to the page labeled "You as a Baby." "You liked rice," she reads. "You loved everything that was red. You liked eggs very much. You never wanted anyone to touch your things. You loved your father so much that when he left the house, you cried." She pauses a moment to reflect and then adds, "We had the brightest future."
Florence was born into a large family in Katwe, a small village just outside of Kampala, Uganda's capital. During the harsh rule of strongman Idi Amin, when Florence was seven years old, soldiers came and took her father. She never saw him again. Her mother, Agatha Zalwango, supported the family with what little she earned selling homegrown cassava root and potatoes.
Ten years ago, at a village gathering, Florence, then 16, met her future husband, Peter, who was 13 years her senior. They were married soon afterward.
Peter kept a promise
to Florence that she could complete her studies. Even while pregnant with
their first child, Florence continued the training that would enable her
to achieve her dream of becoming a nursery school teacher.
Four years after the birth of their son, their daughter Jackie was born. Then came a third baby, a boy. But that baby was sickly. He died in January 1997.
By then, Peter was also ill. He had developed malaria and was unable to work. His health deteriorated with such frightening speed that Florence says she never had time to consider the cause. "He had told me there was no other woman but me," she says. "So I never believed he could get infected with AIDS."
A month after their baby died, Peter was no longer able to speak. "All he could do was hug me," Florence remembers. "Then he was dead. My mother came running to put her arms around me. I couldn't believe he was gone."
Several days after Peter's death, his best friend came to see Florence. "He told me that Peter had a girlfriend in another village," she says without a trace of bitterness or anger. "Then my husband's friend told me that the girlfriend was also very sick. He said I should take a test."
In Uganda, it's not uncommon for married men to have girlfriends and sometimes additional wives. The first wife may even help select the wives who come after her. Even if the relationship is not formalized, it's widely accepted that a man will engage in sexual relations outside his marriage. Traditionally, most wives have simply looked the other way.
For Florence, the discovery of Peter's girlfriend was extremely painful. The next day she went to get an HIV test. After a two-hour wait, the counselor called her into her office for the results.
Florence repeats their conversation in an even and calm voice, as if reading a page from her memory hook. "The counselor said, 'Now Florence, what would you do if the test was positive?' I said I would run home and take sleeping pills. She said, 'Have you ever seen anyone infected with HIV? Why do you suppose those people haven't killed themselves? You know, even if the results come back positive, a person can live for many years if they take good care of their health.' But even as she was saying all this to me, I still had no idea what was coming.
Florence pauses a moment before continuing, "'Now, Florence,' the counselor told me, 'I have sad news for you. Your results are positive.'" Florence ran out of the room and straight to her mother's house. She remembers the exact words she used to break the news: "Mommy, I'm going to die!"
Florence had always been the kind of mother who loved to sing and play with her children. Now she could only sit on the couch and stare out the window.
"Every time I looked at my children I cried," she recalls. "Every time I went to sleep I thought I might die in the night."
When her son asked her why she was crying all the time, she blurted out that she was going to die. "Now I am so ashamed I was so cruel to him. But I didn't know any better then." To make matters worse, her husband's family shunned her, forcing her to move from the home Peter had built and leave their possessions behind. (Despite the prevalence of the virus, many Ugandans still treat infected relatives as outcasts.) "Leave the children with us if you wish," Florence says they told her. "But you cannot stay."
Florence and her children went to live with her mother in the two-room dirt-floor hut she shared with Florence's two younger siblings and two grandchildren. Soon after, Florence began to experience the first symptoms of HIV. Visiting the local clinic, she found herself surrounded by people who were also HIV positive, some of whom had been living with the virus for as long as ten years. "For the first time, I began to think maybe I can also live quite a while if I follow what I'm being told," says Florence. "I started taking the tablets I was given and tried to eat healthy food."
Still, Florence told no one else about the diagnosis. Then she heard a radio announcement about the National Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS (NACWOLA), and mustered the courage to attend a meeting.
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