I want to tell you about two of my colleagues, Benson and Charles. Benson, a stocky individual with a bushy, disheveled mustache, is the Director of the Friends Council and head of the Resource Center. Charles, tall and elegant with defined cheekbones and a huge smile, is the deputy director of the Greater Involvement for People Living with AIDS (GIPA) program and the head of the music, drama, and dance initiative at IDI.
Their jobs are to expand the options for patients at the clinic. By making educational, entrepreneurial, and spiritual resources available, Benson and Charles encourage patients to understand that a positive diagnosis doesn't mean life is not worth living.
I met them both on my first day in Kampala, and over the last few weeks, both have been instrumental in making me feel welcome, and have helped me immensely at work. Benson and Charles have explained how the clinic functions, introducing me to doctors, nurses, and patients. They have taken me to performances and let me sit in on meetings. Needless to say, I have a far greater understanding of this clinic, and the people that make it run, because of Benson and Charles.
Today, after working side-by-side for three weeks, I found out both are HIV Positive. While interviewing them on the successes of the GIPA program, Benson told me he learned of his positive status in 2001. Charles found out all the way back in 1993.
After the interview, I reflected on the lives and fates of these two men. Both are strong, handsome, and eloquent. Both are highly respected at the clinic, and command attention when they speak. And both have been infected with a deadly disease for years.
Before I got to Uganda, I considered HIV/AIDS to be a death sentence. No doubt, this is true for some, as a positive diagnosis can lead to desperation, depression, and ultimately, the end. But Benson and Charles are proof that it doesn't have to be. They have transformed their lives, taking a horrible negative and turning it into a positive, becoming role models in their community. They have become accountable not only for their own well-being, but for the well-being of thousands of others living with HIV.
Both men use their stories to inspire others. When they talk to patients, Benson and Charles can relate to their plight. Patients, in turn, know that they have found a friend and confidante who understands what they are going through. Rather than shy away from the stigma of HIV/AIDS, Benson and Charles embrace it and use it to educate others.
In the last few months alone, almost 2,000 people have used the Resource Center, a collection of computers, games, and health resources that exists primarily due to the hard work and dedication of Benson and Charles. The skills and lessons learned at the Resource Center tangibly helps patients in physical, emotional and intellectual ways.
I was impressed with these Benson and Charles before I chatted with them today. I found them to be smart, dedicated, impressive leaders.
Staring down a debilitating disease only makes them exponentially more impressive.