By Annika McGinnis and Geraldine Kauma
7 a.m. Saturday 17th September 2016: Mandela National Stadium in Namboole was bursting with energy, with different organizations setting up tents, banners and other materials, the Coca Cola truck slowly reversing to bring a tent and drinks to the stadium.
Meanwhile, little ones streamed in to the Reach Out Mbuya clinic in Banda. From there, the Talents Club brass band would march to Namboole, playing trumpets and pounding drums as they proudly carried the Reach Out Mbuya banner through Kireka communities.
Holding hands, the mass of children marched up the sloping hill to Mandela National Stadium, where just two weeks earlier the Uganda Cranes had beat Comoros in a glorious celebration to make it to the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations.
It was the 9th Adolescent Sports Gala hosted by Reach Out Mbuya HIV/AIDS Initiative along with Naguru Teenage and Information Center, though the first at Namboole. Reach Out Mbuya was joined by a coalition of 10 other organizations implementing HIV/AIDS-related programs for young people: Makerere University Joint AIDS Program (MJAP), Straight Talk Foundation, Marie Stopes, MildMay Uganda, DSW Uganda, Treasure Life Center, Turckle Africa, Namugongo Fund for Special Children and Naguru Health Network.
Many of the young people supported by these organizations are HIV-affected. They are exposed to risks such as drug abuse or other vulnerabilities in their communities, often experiencing discrimination because of their HIV status or living conditions.
But on Saturday, the stadium filled with children and adolescents of all ages, chattering happily and enjoying the space to run around and mix freely with their friends. Three colorful bouncing castles shook with the weight of children bouncing away gleefully as music blared from the speakers. Teams of football players and netball players competed, and inside the enormous stadium, boys, girls, and even event officials “took their mark” and raced around the track, the relay events drawing cheers from the youthful crowd.
A small green tent with the MildMay logo had those disseminating information from Reach Out Mbuya and Marie Stopes Uganda. Another tent had MildMay staff and Naguru Teenage Information and Health Centre staff carrying out free voluntary HIV counseling and testing on the youth and anyone willing to check their HIV status.
Worldwide, adolescents and youth between the ages of 15 and 24 are part of the most-at-risk populations in the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Uganda’s population is disproportionately young, with 52.4% under 15 years while adolescents (10-19 years) comprise 23.3%.
As many youth exhibit risky sexual behaviors contributing to the spread of HIV, Reach Out Mbuya originally spearheaded the adolescent sports event to create a fun and safe environment to spread messages to youth of HIV prevention and healthy behaviors. Along with promoting wellness, physical activity for youth has also proven to be an integral strategy for stemming horizontal HIV transmission – a critical health priority for the nation.
“Participating in Sports Gala gives adolescents a free environment to socialize, meet new friends, and have fun together, which helps them to forget about their current situations,” said Mwima Mubakali Junior, a peer educator at the Naguru Teenage Information and Health Center. “You are creating a space for them where they feel they are loved.”
At the gala, information about HIV, the way it is spread and the way it can be avoided was readily available, and youth were reminded that sitting in class with, playing, eating and staying with HIV-positive people would not cause them to contract the virus.
Performing was Reach Out Mbuya’s Talents Club, a group of both HIV-positive and HIV-negative youth that showcase traditional African dance and play in a brass band. Other music, dance and drama performances included a dance skit about the dangers of alcoholism.
The Guest of Honour was the Mayor of Nakawa Division, Eng. Balimwezo Ronald Nsubuga, who spoke about the problem of drug abuse detracting from youth success in sports.
ROM Executive Director Betty Nsangi spoke at a press conference about the uniting and inclusive nature of sports, especially for HIV-positive youth who often experience exclusion and stigma.
“In sports, there is no discrimination; there is teamwork in spite of one’s HIV status, which teaches youth not to discriminate against their HIV positive counterparts,” she said in an interview.
Lubangakene Godfrey, age 21: a rising football star
Lubangakene Godfrey a 21 year old living with HIV, is talented in football and played with Butabika Soccer Academy for over 5 years. While in Primary school, he was bullied by school mates due to the fact that he was HIV positive which pushed him to join sports and even go as far as being the team captain.
Godfrey is a client of Reach Out Mbuya since 2007 and has taken part in the most of the annual Adolescent Sports galas that have been organized, he adds of the Sports galas, “Sports makes me forget my status and increases my hope, it makes me feel that I am part of the team and I can contribute to Reach Out.”
“Because of the counseling and support I get, I find that I am not bothered by what people say and I am strong and competitive, I even know that I can live longer than my HIV negative counterparts, What I want is for equality between the positives and the negatives in our society, just like the females got equality, positives too deserve equality.”
He also went on to address a looming fear that however talented some of the positives may be, before they are signed to any team, they have to undergo medical checkups and once their HIV statuses are realized, they are in most cases dropped from the team.
He dreams of being a football coach, building the biggest orphanage center in the country and being a great agriculturalist in the country.
Byamukama Catherine: supported with school fees, an aspiring lawyer and performer
“I am excited about this year’s adolescents sports gala because I missed the last one, and I can’t wait to meet my old friends and interact with people in the same age group, it’s fun, I hope staff are able to take part because it makes us freely interact with them.”
Byamukama Catherine is such a high spirited teenager, at 18 years of age, she stands as one of the beneficiaries of the Reach Out Mbuya Parish HIV/AIDS Initiative (ROM) Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC) program that seeks to offer support to children infected and affected by HIV who may not have the necessary requirements to lead wholesome lives.
Catherine’s parents are both clients of ROM and had earlier experienced hardships in taking their five children to school because of poverty. ROM came in and supported Catherine and her elder sister by paying their fees, Catherine was sponsored for the past 7 year, since her Primary Five until afer her ‘O’ levels, unfortunately, donor proprieties changed and she was dropped from the beneficiaries.
Being HIV negative, she says the Sports gala has been very influential in her relationships with her HIV positive counterparts. “There is no segregation and we interact despite the status, sports is fun because we forget what one is, and even if you came with a negative view about HIV, at least you will leave with value added.”
In future, the bubbly teenager wants to do law, be a teacher and do performing arts, vocations which she says bring out best who she is and enable her to interact with people freely.
Joan: An HIV-positive child, part of Friends Forum
“Sports gala makes me happy because I get to be with my friends.”
Joan, an 11 year old living with HIV is still oblivious about what society thinks of people of her status and most likely has not yet got to the point of having to disclose her status to anyone.
She is part of the ROM “Friends Forum” that brings together children and adolescents living with HIV to share experiences and best practices on living positively with the disease.
These are the little ones that we need to protect from a harsh community that segregates people according to their status.