UGANDA - "There is nothing else like it in the country," said one Ugandan official at the opening ceremony. All other centers for youth are located in the major cities. For the first time, young people from the rural areas can access state-of-the-art care in their own backyard
Alex Oula, a clinical officer at the Ogur clinic, speaks with a young mother about the importance of HIV awareness. (Photo by Ryan Rushing)
UGANDA - For 10 months, Nancy Akullu, 24, lived with the knowledge that she was HIV-positive. She had been tested, and told that antibiotics would help treat her secondary infections and improve her quality of life.
When Medical Teams International opened the doors to the new Ogur Youth Information & Care Center in Uganda, Nancy came for that medicine.
The staff at the center explained that they needed to verify her condition before giving her medication. She agreed to an HIV test. Twenty minutes later, her test came back negative.
“At first she couldn’t believe the result was true,” says Josephine, one of the counselors at the center. After a counseling session with our staff and a second test, Nancy was relieved to learn that she was indeed HIV negative. “She really felt that this center and our services helped her so much,” says Josephine.
Nancy and others like her are the reason that Medical Teams International built a counseling and testing center in northern Uganda.
“Young people in the region do not know their status and do not have access to reliable testing centers or accurate information,” says Ryan Rushing, the HIV and AIDS technical services coordinator at Medical Teams International. “They’ve also been subjected to incredible violence in their lives and have a high chance of being HIV positive.”
HIV follows footsteps of violence
Northern Ugandans built temporary huts on hillsides to protect themselves from a rebel group called the Lord's Resistance Army. Living conditions were crowded and often unsafe. (Photo by Dr. Jon Bird)
In northern Uganda, which has witnessed more than 20 years of rebel fighting, “rape has often been used as the weapon of choice,” says Laura van Vuuren, AIDS senior technical advisor at Medical Teams International. Many women and children that Medical Teams International treats in the displaced people camps have been sexually violated, which has caused a spike in HIV infections.
“One village, which housed government soldiers during the war, now has a much higher rate of HIV infection than other places in Uganda,” says Felix Omodi, Medical Teams International’s country director in Uganda. “The soldiers really hurt the people living there. Rape is a culturally taboo topic, so the women were shy about reporting it, even to their husbands.”
Truly sustainable: Local materials, local labor, local staff
(Top) Workers began to lay the foundation for the center in the spring of 2007. (Bottom) The Ogur Youth Information & Care Center today. (Photos courtesy of Medical Teams International-Uganda staff)
The youth center took just three months to construct using local workers and materials. It is also staffed with young people from the area.
“This project provided a paycheck to people living in a place that suffers from severe unemployment,” says Rushing. “For many it was their first substantial income in years.”
More than just the workers embraced the project. The center has become a community gathering place, with people bringing their lunch to eat in the courtyard.
“There is nothing else like it in the country,” said one Ugandan official at the opening ceremony. All other centers for youth are located in the major cities. For the first time, young people from the rural areas can access state-of-the-art care in their own backyard.
Creating a center the youth own
In October 2007, the center opened its doors to the public. Since that time, many more patients have visited the clinic than anticipated.
“We are thrilled by the response,” says Omodi, who expected 20 youth a week to visit the center, but says they’ve received more than seven times that number—approximately 600 patients a month.
Community education has also helped the youth embrace this center and feel it is their own. Peer educators and drama troupes present at schools, churches and radio stations, urging youth—who make up half of Uganda’s population—to visit the center and find out their own HIV status.
“People are biking from as far as 20 to 30 miles away seeking services,” says Omodi. “We don’t turn them away even though they are not from Ogur. We treat everyone.”
The services are free and available for people ages 10-24, Monday through Friday.
Counselors feel the pain; some are HIV-positive
Staff train future peer educators to talk with fellow youth about HIV and AIDS awareness and education. Some peer educators are HIV-positive themselves. (Photo courtesy of Medical Teams International-Uganda staff)
The counselors and peer educators themselves have struggled through the war and can speak intimately about how HIV and AIDS have impacted their lives.
Maria Achen currently works with youth as a peer educator and is HIV-positive. She speaks openly about her status and encourages youth to learn more about HIV and AIDS.
Rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army abducted Achen when she was 12 years old. A commander took her and 19 other young girls as sex slaves and infected them with HIV. When he died, she escaped and sought help from Medical Teams International’s health staff.
“When we met her, she had a rash and sores all over her body and she had lost hope,” says Omodi. “One of our clinical officers cared for her every day until the rashes and sores disappeared. We talked with her about treatment options and helped connect her with an agency that provides antiretrovirals (ARVs),” a medication that helps slow the progress of HIV.
Achen, now 23, gained hope as she gained strength. She now passes that hope on to others.
Promoting healthy behaviors through drama and sports clubs
The youth center cannot be successful merely by determining who does or does not have HIV and AIDS. Those creating the program knew they needed to create positive experiences and encourage healthy behaviors if the center was to produce long-term change.
Recreation and dramatic creativity was the answer.
Recreational activities have successfully engaged youth in their community and encouraged them to practice healthy behaviors. (Photo courtesy of Medical Teams International-Uganda staff)
“Recreation has really helped us bring the youth together,” says Omodi, who recently organized a soccer tournament in Ogur.
“The final match was an exciting event in the community,” says Omodi. “We announced it over the radio and welcomed everyone—students, teachers, parents. We held a musical competition beforehand, inviting groups to write songs about HIV awareness. At 4 p.m. we went out for the match and again shared information about the youth center and HIV and AIDS.”
“It is exciting to see how the community is uniting and embracing what Medical Teams International is doing,” says Omodi. “As people return home from the displaced persons camps, they are happy to be alive and have hope after so many years of violence. People are very busy now rebuilding themselves spiritually, emotionally and physically. Even people who are really sick with AIDS still want a chance to care for their families. That is why the Ogur Youth Center is so important for this time and this place.”