Grace is an HIV Counselor for Africa Development Corps. Grace is HIV positive. Read her story...
Grace Likico (34) is not like any other Grace you have met. Born into the Kakwa tribe in the Koboko district of the West Nile in Uganda in 1974, Grace spent most of her childhood in exile in South Sudan. In 1979, Grace's parents fled from war and years of terror in Uganda - bringing their son and seven daughters with them across the border to South Sudan. That year, Tanzanian forces beat the Ugandan Army fighting under the brutal dictator Idi Amin, effectively ending Idi Amin's reign of terror. Despite his fall from power, Grace's parents remained in South Sudan, where they erected shelter on a plot of land. Her father, a primary school teacher, found work at a school and was able to provide for his family. "Life in exile was tough," Grace remembers. "School was often closed because of the fighting between the Sudanese army and the rebel group SPLM, and many children died of starvation." Grace's parents, at a great risk, frequently crossed the border between Sudan and Uganda in order to fetch food for their eight children.
In 1991, Grace moved back to Uganda. She was seventeen, had no prior knowledge of the Ugandan school system and curricula, and struggled to pass secondary school. In 1996, Grace went on to study Business Administration, majoring in Accounting, at Nkumba University in Entebbe. Her boyfriend of many years shared her fate: he was also born in the West Nile and lived in exile in South Sudan during his childhood. Reunited again in Uganda as university students, Grace and her boyfriend spent two years together that would forever change Grace's life. Grace often regrets her decision to trust the only man she has ever been with.
In October 1998, Grace's boyfriend fell ill. Grace cared for him and when she had to finish her exams she used her scholarship money to pay for her boyfriend's sister to come and nurse him. Grace later took her boyfriend, who had been bedridden for two weeks with no signs of recovering, to the hospital. She stayed in the hospital for two weeks - never leaving his side. Grace's boyfriend was put in the HIV/AIDS section of the hospital but no one ever tested him for the HIV virus. He was only treated for the opportunistic infections. He died of diarrhea on December 20, 1998. "On Christmas day," Grace recalls, "I traveled with my dead boyfriend's body from Kampala to the West Nile so that he could be buried in his homeland." Grace stayed with his mother for three weeks, mourning the loss of a son whose death was abrupt and unexplained. Ten years later, his death remains a mystery for his mother. Grace has not yet had the opportunity to tell his mother that AIDS was the cause of death.
After burying her boyfriend Grace returned to school for her final year. Wary of her boyfriend's sudden death, Grace visited Entebbe hospital for a check-up. She returned after three days for her results: Grace found out she had HIV from the sign on the door where she was asked to pick up her results. In shock, Grace tested again and again - only to confirm that she was HIV positive. "It was very difficult to accept the results. I felt fine and showed no symptoms of the virus yet," she conveys. In 2001 Grace was employed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Four years later she and many of the other local recruits were laid off. Grace became sick in December 2005, but because she was unemloyed and had little money, she was not able to treat the opportunistic infections. "I got terrible malaria that almost killed me," Grace says quietly. At the time, she was living in a house rented by a Catholic priest who could no longer stand by as Grace withered away. The priest gave Grace money to go to the hospital for treatment and care. She started antiretroviral treatment in April 2006, which allowed her to regain her health and energy. In November 2006, Grace moved to Gulu in northern Uganda to look for employment and in April 2007 Grace started her career as an HIV counselor with Africa Development Corps.
As an HIV Counselor for Africa Development Corps's Voluntary Counseling and Testing Center in Gulu, Grace is able to prevent youth from falling into the same trap as her. "Nobody understands why I got infected with HIV," she says. "I was a good girl and only had one boyfriend. That was enough to get infected. The lesson is: don't trust anyone. Always get tested and make your partner get tested too." Grace not only provides young people with her lessons on fidelity and the importance of HIV testing, but she is also a prime example of how to live positively with HIV. "Life isn't over if you are HIV positive - I finished my studies, I never miss a day of work, and I feel healthy," Grace explains. Being open and honest about her HIV status has enabled Grace to save many young people from following in her footsteps. "People who are HIV positive are afraid of disclosing their status because of the stigma attached to being infected. As a person living with HIV I have an important role and contribution to make because the only way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS is to be open and honest," Grace tells. "If you disclose your status you will find you are free and you no longer have to hide." The ones who test positive for the HIV virus she gently and gracefully counsels so that they, like her, will be able to live long, healthy and fulfilling lives.
Africa Development Corps Voluntary Counseling and Testing Centres in Gulu and Kitgum provide free HIV testing and counseling. People who test positive are referred to nearby hospitals and health clinics for treatment, care and support. In Uganda, antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) are provided free of charge by the government.