Tucked away from society, hidden behind unpaved roads, in the middle of vast fields, with little access to food and water, sits Lyantonde, a tiny town in southern Central Uganda. It is the country's HIV/AIDS epicenter.
This is where it all began. In 1982, the country’s first recorded AIDS case was documented in what was formerly the Rakai district, in the southwest of Uganda about four hours from the capital, Kampala. The region has since made a name for itself, having the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the country, at 12 percent amongst adults aged 15-49. The rest of the country hovers around 7.2 percent.
If you’ve ever driven through Lyantonde, you probably never knew you were there: A small, undeveloped township consisting of a few dusty roads with shanty shops, greasy street food, boda-boda drivers (motorcycle taxis) and the token hostel for the random traveller. It’s not on most people’s "must-see" lists.
That is, unless you’re a long haul truck driver.
What most passers by might not realize is that Lyantonde is an infamous trucker town and the main stopover between Uganda and Rwanda for long distance drivers.
It’s the one-stop-shop servicing center for truckers in need. In Lyatonde, a lot of drivers decide that they need sex and are willing to pay for it.
As the sun sets and the electricity cuts out, young girls with no education and 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 during the night, while others go directly to the source – where the trucks stop on the edge of town.
Agnes Nabukenya and Susan Naikaba were introduced to VICE News via a connection at Child Aid Uganda (CHAU), a local NGO. CHAU focuses on helping children and families affected by HIV/AIDS.
The girls were shy and soaked in perfume. They had frightened eyes, their baby-faces pleading that they not be "outed" to their friends and families who had no idea they were working the streets.
“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.”
The 23-year-old was quiet and then said she was worried about contracting HIV/AIDS and so she always uses a condom, even if that means she has to work twice as hard.
But Susan was the 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 in the industry for seven years. “I can get 10,000 [Ugandan Shillings - approximately $4] for sex with a condom and 50,000 [$18] for sex without one.”
And what happens when prostitutes discover they have HIV or AIDS?
“My co-workers who find out they are infected stop using condoms altogether and don’t tell their clients they have the disease.”
“So they continue working?”
Agnes slowly nodded.
It’s unclear if she understood the magnitude of what she and her colleagues were doing, but her eyes kept darting towards the floor, as if to say, "I know it’s wrong, but do I really have a choice?"
To date, there are an estimated 9,500 OVC’s (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 have not had an opportunity to develop and adopt a combined approach in combating the disease,” said Lauben Tushemereirwe, Executive Director and one of the co-founders of CHAU.
Since its inception in 2004, CHAU has sponsored more than 600 children with schoolbooks, tuition fees, housing and even buying animals for families so they can use them to barter. Their attempt to foster education and community involvement is laudable, but among a group of ill children and orphans, it’s difficult not to think that they were facing an uphill struggle.
Lauben and his team drove through banana groves and non-existent roads where no cars should attempt to go, in the name of showing the "real villagers." He was showing the stark contrast between the families that were sponsored by CHAU and those who were not.
At some stops well-fed children in crisp button down shirts eager were to show off their grades, new skills and English. Other times we were introduced to gaunt, undernourished 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 sad, vicious cycle of orphans, single parents and struggling communities.
While people in the West are now living with AIDS, those in Lyantonde (and much of Africa) continue to die from AIDS. Visiting this town and its surrounding villages felt a bit like traveling back in time.
Rosemary Namakula looked at us, but didn’t speak. Her stoic gaze was unnerving as we learned that this 43-year-old, single mother of ten was dying of AIDS.
“Her husband had multiple partners including prostitutes,” explained Lauben, as Rosemary continued to fixate. “He especially liked the young ones.”
Due to the stigma surrounding the disease, before Rosemary’s husband died he didn’t tell her he was infected. When he passed away (along with the three prostitutes he’d been sleeping with), she got tested and discovered she was HIV positive. “We’re trying to help as much as we can. She’s now taking medication but doesn’t have enough money to support her ten children.”
Rosemary still has to walk six hours each way, once a month to get her meds. It’s 12 hours of walking under the Ugandan sun, along unpaved roads on which gang rapes are commonplace. She was very likely not going to survive much longer, leaving behind a flock of children.
On our last day in town we 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 burly and strong and some didn’t pay them after sex.
When asked, if given the chance, what they’d rather be doing instead, they both said they’d like to own businesses. Susan a clothing shop, and Agnes a shoe shop. What is unclear is if they’d be around long enough to realize those dreams. For now, they wait on the main strip, standing at the epicenter of AIDS.
Photos by Mariah Quesada