The everyday feel of death In Uganda

November 2, 2003

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KAMPALA, UGANDA – We’re in what’s called the Pearl of Africa, where red-dirt roads cross rolling, green countryside; where elephants get the right-of-way when on safari, and, even in the capital, wild monkeys might run across your tin roof and wake you in the morning.

It’s an enchanting place that can capture and break your heart at once.

Jean and I are to here shooting a video about a certain crisis, that of mothers dying.

It’s estimated 6,000 Ugandan women die every year, among the half million who die in the developing world annually because they have no access to basic health care during child delivery.

The video is for a new educational program known as Save the Mothers. Jean is executive director. More on that sometime later.

Better known is AIDS. It has killed some 1.5 million Ugandans in 20 years. Coffin-makers build their wooden caskets right on the roadsides here. It’s one of the more startling things I’ve seen.

Another was meeting an old woman who, by herself, was caring for her nine grandchildren, orphaned by AIDS. Such are today’s Ugandan families.

Then there’s our driver, Paul, who took us on a potholed trip in the lush countryside to see “the tombs.” We thought we were going to a cemetery to film. Instead we ended up in his home’s backyard, where virtually his entire family is buried. AIDS again.

One day, after the disease took her fifth child, Paul’s mother sat down and cried, he explains. At that moment, she too died. Heart attack.

She’s buried beside Paul’s father, who was shot dead in his own home during Uganda’s civil war. That war killed 300,000. That was after the Idi Amin era, which killed even more.

But I think the saddest thing I’ve seen here has been in a hospital, a relatively wellrun university facility, where, in the corner of a hallway, lay a little bundle, neatly wrapped, with a tag indicating a dead baby was inside. It was there five minutes, 10 minutes, 20, 30, I really don’t know. It was still there when I left.

Yes, Ugandans, among the most pleasant people you’ll ever meet, know suffering. Still, there are islands of hope in this sea of despair.

For one thing, their AIDS rate has dropped from about 30 per cent to five per cent, thanks to a public campaign promoting sexual abstinence outside of marriage, in addition to condom use. It’s considered a model for Africa, where 30 million AIDS victims make up 70 per cent of the world’s cases.

And thanks to unyielding lobbying from aid groups such as Doctors Without Borders, rich countries, led in part by Canada, are now changing drug patent rules to finally allow the developing world access to cheap, generic AIDS anti-viral drugs. They can’t come soon enough. Just one in 30 AIDS sufferers in the developing world receive treatment. The rest can’t afford it.

That’s no surprise, when you survive on about a dollar a day, as tens of millions of humans do. Three years ago, anti-virals cost as much as $1,000 US a month. Now that the generics are about $30 US a month, Uganda’s government is among those planning to foot the costs for its people.

This, obviously, is very good news. But it’s taken rich countries far too long to help. And while the anti-virals may give AIDS victims another 10 years or more, sideeffects aren’t known. They won’t prevent new cases. And without a huge focus on now getting trained health workers to where they’re needed to administer these drugs, millions of people will still be left to die, needlessly.

So the West shouldn’t make another mistake and think that by simply sending these drugs, everything is fine. It’s not.

What’s really needed here is an influx of hands-on care that will give a new desire for life. Because it seems to me that, like that bundled baby in the hallway shows, folks around here are already all-too comfortable with the everyday feel of death.

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November 2, 2003 • Posted in ,
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