Sharon is a beautiful, vibrant 23-year old woman. With light brown skin, dark almond eyes, and a lovely smile, you would not think twice if you saw her modeling the latest fashions in a magazine or strutting down a runway in New York or Milan.
Mercy is a bouncy, lively 24-year old woman. With dark curls and a sheepish grin, she giggles constantly, and loves reading and hanging out with her many friends.
Gideon is a shy, sweet 22-year old young man. With sunken eyes, a wispy goatee, and a small, athletic frame, you have to lean in to hear his quiet voice. He told me he’s certain that Brazil is going to win the World Cup.
Above: Sharon and Mercy at the IDI clinic
All three are kind, smart young people around my age. We deal with many of the same pressures and issues: fights with friends, impressing the opposite sex, finding work, and most of all, figuring out what kind of person we want to be as adulthood steadily approaches.
There’s only one major difference: Sharon, Mercy and Gideon are trying to do all that while living with the HIV virus.
Once a week, the Infectious Disease Institute holds a clinic specifically for young adults, ages 16-24. These patients receive medication, and listen to workshops focusing on, among other things, health and well-being, computer skills, and business acumen. Peer counselors are on hand to discuss HIV-related issues with the patients. A staff member told me that up to 100 young people come each week for the clinic.
Speaking with them, I was struck by how similar we are. Sharon spoke glowingly about her loving parents that support her every decision. Gideon and I watched a World Cup game on television and discussed how best to convince a pretty girl to go on a date with you. Mercy told me that she often feels bad about having to choose to hang out with one group of friends over another.
And yet, I simply cannot comprehend the dilemmas and obstacles my three new friends face. For Sharon, coming to the clinic is extremely difficult while holding a job, as she can’t tell her boss about her positive status or she will be fired. Attending school, while regularly visiting the clinic and taking invasive drugs, is extraordinarily hard. Finding a boyfriend or girlfriend is even tougher. These young people yearn for a partner, and know that they must disclose the fact that they are HIV positive, but dread having someone they like leave them. A youth counselor named Rachel told me that many couples do try and stay together even if one person is HIV positive, but there are no guarantees.
Gideon’s story is perhaps the most tragic. He moved to Kampala three months ago to find work, living with friends of his former guardians back home in a small village on the Ugandan-Congo border. After being verbally and physically abused by his new landlords, he moved out. One month ago, Gideon discovered he is HIV positive. Now, living alone in a tiny apartment without running water or electricity, he has no money and not a single friend in Kampala. What money he does make comes from selling meat on a skewer. He has no one to confide in, no one to trust.
After telling me his story, Gideon asked for my advice. I was speechless.
Growing up is hard. My peers and I continue to get older and work through the pains and obstacles brought on by maturity. It’s often difficult to know if you’re making the right decision, who you can rely on, and what’s best for your future.
Sharon, Mercy and Gideon deal with the same issues. But they also do daily battle with the HIV virus and the pain that it brings physically, mentally, and emotionally.
I can’t even imagine.