Meeting the Truck Stop Prostitutes of Uganda's HIV Capital

By Sam Mednick

All photos by Mariah Quesada. Agnes Nabukenya has been working as a prostitute since she was 17. She can make four times as much if she doesn’t use a condom.

I clutched on as the wheels of the Toyota minivan carved a path through a series of muddy, makeshift villages. We were being driven through Lyantonde District—the HIV/AIDS epicenter of Uganda—to meet the area's "families with AIDS," a community tucked away from society, with little access to food or water, down long stretches of unpaved roads.

In 1982, the country's first recorded AIDS case was documented in the Rakai District, which borders Lyantonde. The region in southwest Uganda now has the highest rate of HIV in the country—12 percent among adults aged 15 to 49, as opposed to around 7.2 percent throughout the rest of the country.

If you’ve ever driven through Lyantonde, you probably wouldn't have realized. It's a small, undeveloped township that consists of a few dusty roads, some shanty shops, a couple of street food stalls, some motorcycle taxis, and a hostel. It's unlikely that it's on your "must-see" list. Unless, that is, you're a long-haul trucker.

Lyantonde is an infamous trucker town and the main stopover between Uganda and Rwanda for long distance drivers, where sex is readily available as long as you're prepared to pay for it. 

Lyantonde

As the sun sets and the electricity cuts out, young, uneducated girls in need of money flock to Lyantonde's main strip to earn their living. Prostitution is illegal in Uganda, so some work "cover jobs" in small bars, waiting for patrons they can sneak off with, while others go directly to the source, where the trucks stop on the edge of town.

I met Agnes Nabukenya and Susan Naikaba through a connection at Child Aid Uganda (CHAU), a local NGO that focuses on helping children and families affected by HIV/AIDS. The girls were shy and soaked in perfume. 

Lauben and his staff at CHAU.

“I came to Lyantonde because my dad died,” Susan explained. “I couldn't get a job because I had no education, so I decided to sell myself for money. I now have a three-year-old son who I also have to support.”

I asked the 23-year-old what her biggest fear was, and she was quiet for a moment, before telling me she was worried about contracting HIV/AIDS. She said she always uses a condom, even if that means she has to work twice as hard. I quickly learned that she was an exception in her field.

“Sometimes I use a condom and sometimes I don’t,” said Agnes, the now 23-year-old veteran who’s been working the streets for seven years. “I can get 10,000 [Ugandan Shillings, approximately $3.60] for sex with a condom, and 50,000 [$18] for sex without one.”

I asked what happens when prostitutes discover they have HIV or AIDS.

“My co-workers who find out that they're infected stop using condoms altogether and don’t tell their clients they have the disease.”

“So they continue working?” I asked.

Agnes nodded slowly.

To date, there are an estimated 9,500 OVCs (orphans and vulnerable children) in a district of 80,000 people. “Lyantonde is one of the most susceptible regions and towns in Uganda, and we haven't had an opportunity to develop and adopt a combined approach in combating [HIV/AIDS],” says Lauben Tushemereirwe, executive director and one of the co-founders of CHAU.  

Since it was founded in 2004, CHAU has provided more than 600 children with schoolbooks, tuition/fees, and housing, and has even bought animals for families so they can use them to barter for goods. Their attempt to foster education and community involvement is laudable, but as I stood among a group of sick children and orphans, I couldn't help but think that they were still at the bottom of a huge uphill struggle.

Susan Naikaba works as a prostitute to support her three-year-old son.

During my time with CHAU, Lauben and his team drove us through banana groves and down dirt tracks to meet some "real villagers." He wanted to show us the stark contrast between those being sponsored by CHAU and those who weren't.

At some stops we were by smiling, well-fed children in crisp button-down shirts, all eager to show off their grades and English skills. Other times, we were introduced to gaunt, malnourished families, parentless children, or single mothers and fathers who didn’t utter a word.

The stories of families torn apart by HIV/AIDS were endless. Infidelity wasn’t taboo, but in Lyantonde men were sleeping with prostitutes who were servicing truckers without condoms, resulting in a vicious cycle of single parents, orphans, and the pressure that puts on local communities.

While people in the West are now living with AIDS, those in Lyantonde (and much of Africa) continue to die from the disease. When I first met Rosemary Namakula, a 43-year-old single mother of 10, she stared at me but didn’t say a word. After a while, she began to tell me that she was dying of AIDS.

"Her husband had multiple partners, including prostitutes,” explained Lauben. “He especially liked the young ones.”

Lyantonde

Because of the stigma surrounding the disease, Rosemary's husband didn't tell her he was infected before he died. When he passed away (along with the three prostitutes he'd been regularly sleeping with), she got tested and discovered she was HIV positive.

"We’re trying to help as much as we can," said Lauben. "She’s now taking medication, but she doesn’t have enough money to support her 10 children.”

CHAU can only help the local population so much; once a month, Rosemary still has to walk six hours each way to get her meds. It’s 12 hours of walking under the Ugandan sun, along unpaved roads that are known as danger spots for gang-rapes. When I met her, I was told it was unlikely that she would survive much longer, leaving behind her 10 children with no mother or father to care for them.

On my last day in town I met up with Susan and Agnes again. I asked them if they ever feared for their lives while working. They said yes; some of the men were quite strong, and some didn’t pay them after sex. I asked them what, given the chance, they’d rather be doing instead. They both said that they’d like to own businesses—Susan a clothing shop and Agnes a shoe shop.

For now, they will continue spending their nights on the strip, waiting for work in the epicenter of Uganda's HIV capital. 

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