Positive action to combat HIV

Saturday 28th September marked the second Community Health Day that Volunteer Uganda held in Kanungu.

In a guest post, here is what volunteers Jake and Amy had to say about the day:

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The sun was the strongest it has been in three weeks. Volunteers steadily entered the breakfast room. Fuelled by half a jungle of bananas we formed an assembly of HIV warriors prepared to occupy Kanungu Town for the afternoon.

Decked out in our matching red VU t-shirts and armed with 200 HIV tests, 400 condoms and armfuls of posters, we headed to Kanungu at 11:30am to start our day.

Since the summer of 2010 when VU first partnered with Mend the Broken Hearts of Uganda and launched VU’s HIV/AIDS outreach programme we have informed, supported and tested thousands of students in local Secondary Schools.

However, today the message goes regional as VU combines forces with Reproductive Health Uganda, Uganda Red Cross and Mend the Broken Hearts on a busy market day in Kanungu Taxi Park. With tents and banners decorating the square, members of the community rolled in, absorbing the days message that together we can get the rate of new HIV infections to Zero.

We had several stands sharing information, from true and false facts about the HIV virus to how to prevent catching the virus, from condom demonstration to positive living. We also had HIV positive councillors who were on hand to offer advice and support.

The highlight of the day by far was when people came and showed us their negative test results. It is not often you see people so happy; one lady was dancing around and gave hugs and high fives to every single one of us. She didn’t speak a word of English but her smiles were infectious.

By 2.30pm we had used all 200 HIV tests. Anyone who was tested received free counselling regardless of their result. 6 radio announcements, 1 truck, 3 tents, 5 information stalls, 1 condom demonstration booth, 10 wooden penis’, 400 condoms, 18 health workers, 200 FREE HIV tests, 10 blood donors, 1 GIANT AIDS Ribbon, 5 Team leaders and 18 AWESOME volunteers later, Volunteer Uganda had interacted with over 500 members if the community over one busy, rewarding, once in a life time afternoon.

It was a really great day which we all enjoyed. When we got back to the VU lodge we had a celebratory BBQ, which proved that, regardless of where they are in the world, if a group of Brits try to have a BBQ, it will pour down! But having had such a great afternoon, nothing could dampen our spirits.

Kanungu: Moving from a dark past to a brighter future

If Kampala is the biggest K that volunteers encounter, Kanungu is certainly the most familiar. It is home to Volunteer Uganda, it is where we live, where we are at once guests and part of this community.

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Kanungu town, as you would expect, is the administrative centre of Kanungu district located in the south-west of Uganda. Travel more than 50km from Kanungu and it becomes a place few have heard of. It sounds remote, it is remote, and to those living in the urban sprawl of Kampala it may as well be on another planet.

Of those who have heard of my home for the last year, many know Kanungu for all the wrong reasons.

Ask, and most people will tell you that they remember Kanungu as the place where up to five hundred members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God burnt to death in their church on the morning of 17 March 2000. They had been promised by their leaders that the apocalypse was coming and only those inside the church would be saved. Then the doors were locked,the windows boarded up, and the building torched. It was and remains to is day the largest cult killing in the world.

But Kanungu should be known and remembered for much more than a dark past.

It is a place of generous hospitality, unfailing kindness and the warmest of welcomes to any visitor. Do not be fooled by the fact there is no Rukiga word for please, the people are courteous in an African way, a way you come to understand if you are lucky enough to spend a significant amount of time in their company.

I shake, on average, two dozen hands a day, each one with a smile and a genuine inquiry as to how I am, usually in Rukiga and English and, if it is Mohammed the mechanic who is asking, French too.

Friends are easily made, from Nicholas, the opener of the local stationary store, to Ellie, the local postmaster. From the fuel station attendant always ready with a wave as you drive by to the woman in the phone shop who refuses to speak any English to you – just for fun. Whether it is carpenter Frank, Moses, owner of the local drinks supplier, or Maureen, tailor of the finest African pants, everyone takes time to get to know you and makes you feel at home in a foreign environment.

The fact that these connections and lasting friendships can be made is a credit to the way that Volunteer Uganda operates in Kanungu. In our red shirts and branded vans, we are a visible presence and a respected one.

It is our work that will help Kanungu turn it’s dark past into a brighter future. That is what people in Kanungu want – to look forward, to move on.

Leaving Bunyonyi, never easy

After a week of intensive teacher training and their first week teaching in schools volunteers deserve a relaxing weekend. And that is exactly what Lake Bunyonyi offers.

20130926-095758.jpgLake Bunyonyi, meaning “The place of many little birds”, is a paradise only a half hour drive from the Rwandan border. Set at 11,000ft above sea level, the lake was formed as a result of volcanic ash blocking the flow of a river, flooding a deep valley.

The depth of the lake is a matter of dispute, and while the sign which claims Lake Bunyonyi is the deepest lake in Uganda plunging to a depth of 6500ft may be a little optimistic, what is for sure is the depth of the lake means it is safe for swimming, free from bilharzia and other waterborne parasites.

Volunteers stay on their own private island, one of twenty-nine on the lake, called Nature’s Prime. There are hot showers – another treat after two weeks of getting used, if that is possible, to cold showers at the VU lodge – meals caught straight from the lake and a 20ft diving platform set, rather precariously, atop an old tree. It is a place to sit back, relax and take in the lake’s natural charm and beauty.

Not all the islands on the lake were always so idyllic. Akampene Island, the smallest island, was once a place of punishment, a place where young girls who had fallen pregnant out of wedlock were sent to starve and die. This practice only ended in the 1960s, but fifty years is long enough for the memory of that past to fade – it is something rarely spoken about by locals looking to portray a less frightening picture of Bunyonyi.

It is a story far from the minds of volunteers who paddle on the lake in a canoe carved from a single wooden log or choose to swim between the islands. All worries, all stress, all thoughts of the sheer drops on the three hour drive to the lake melt away.

The poor young girls of Akampene Island could not leave Bunyonyi. The lake has changed so much in character and conduct that our volunteers never want to.

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