Support from Nevada County helps Peace survive in Uganda
Special to The Union
Know & Go
What: Kellermann’s Batwa Challenge 5K and 10K run/walk
When: 8 a.m. Aug. 25
Where: Pioneer Park in Nevada City
Everyone should know Peace.
Peace works with the Kellermann Foundation’s Bwindi Community Hospital in Uganda. She greeted me with the sincere warmth of an old friend. I had arrived on my latest volunteer trip to the Kellermann Foundation project in southwestern Uganda.
She hugged me tightly, gave me an enthusiastic kiss on the cheek and looked deeply into my eyes, conveying her apparent joy over the return of an old friend. It was a Sunday morning and, during the church service, Peace announced it was her 50th birthday celebration. Dr. Kellermann and I were both invited to attend her party later in the day.
During the church service Peace spoke about turning 50 and gave a touching shout out of thanks to Dr. Kellermann for starting the hospital. She was grateful to turn 50 because frankly, the odds had been against her.
When Peace was 28, her husband died of AIDS. It was during a time, in remote sub-Saharan Africa, when HIV was rampant, knowledge of prevention scarce and antiretroviral therapy largely unavailable.
Peace found herself a young, pregnant widowed mother with two little girls and very little income. She also found that she, too, was HIV positive.
Now, so many years later, at her 50th birthday party, with a large group of friends packed into her tiny living space, Peace shared her story of gratitude.
The windowless room was dimly-lit by one bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. In sharp contrast, the blinding afternoon sun streamed in through an open front door where overflow guests perched on a bench. Two giant homemade and heavily frosted birthday cakes were cut and passed on paper napkins. Eager hands reached out to share a portion of the rare, sweet treat.
Peace stood in the back of the room, a huge white smile spreading ear to ear, making sure that every guest was offered a soda and slice of cake. Then in a strong and confident voice she told the group about what it had been like to be HIV positive in the late 1990s.
Back then, it was believed that even shaking hands with an HIV positive person could infect them. People with HIV became the modern equivalent of Old Testament lepers, untouchables doomed to a short life, lived on the fringes.
I could hear the spirit of determination in Peace’s voice as she shared the story of being a young widow, returning to school and raising her daughters. She smiled even more broadly as she remembered the good fortune of meeting the Kellermanns.
Dr. Scott and Carol Kellermann would occasionally stop by the modest takeaway restaurant she ran to support her daughters and provide education costs for the accounting degree she pursued. Scott Kellermann attended Peace’s graduation ceremony and remembers that the entire school gave her a standing ovation when she crossed the graduation stage.
She was obviously very well loved by others and when Peace returned to her seat, accounting diploma in hand, Scott Kellermann was there to congratulate her. On an instinct, he offered her a job, right then and there, to work at the Bwindi hospital.
He has never regretted that impulse.
On most mornings you will find Peace leading the hospital morning worship service, preaching the Good News with the conviction of someone who really knows what the Good News is all about. As a part of the hospital staff, Peace played a key leadership role in developing their HIV program and outreach.
She personally organized a group of “trained expert patients” who fan out into the surrounding communities providing sensitization, encouraging HIV testing and modeling what it means to live successfully as an HIV positive person. Through these teams’ efforts over 1,000 people are tested for HIV each month.
Peace took it upon herself to organize an HIV Positive support group for women in the community. They meet regularly, encourage each other and mutually pursue income generation projects like raising chickens and selling the eggs. Their vision is a world where HIV positive women are free from stigma, able to integrate openly in the community and able to sustain themselves and their families.
At her birthday party, Peace honored these women by introducing each one of them individually and translating their very personal and often tragic back stories. Many of them had been forced to work as prostitutes in order to feed their children. They all said that the peer support from the women’s group had changed their lives. One after another they related beautiful redemption stories of choosing to define the narrative of their lives, not as victims, but as survivors. You could not listen to such candor and keep from weeping.
Peace then introduced her youngest daughter, aptly named Miracle, because she had not contracted HIV at birth, as so many babies had back then.
As Peace talked about her gratitude, and specifically thanked Scott Kellermann for his friendship and support, her tears of joy and her broad smile were contagious.
Peace thanked him for bringing health care to the Bwindi area, when none had existed. She reminded us all that before the hospital, people with HIV had to walk for three days to receive the lifesaving anti-retro-virals. Many could simply not do so and had died quickly from the ravages of AIDS.
These days the rates of new HIV cases are dramatically lower, no doubt due to the prevention education provided through the hospital. Mother-to-child HIV transmission is almost zero because of the robust testing and treatment program offered at the waiting mothers hostel.
At times, I’ll admit, I can be numb to the miracles that happen in Bwindi. I have sometimes questioned the value of my efforts in the work I do for the Kellermann Foundation. Has it made a tangible difference? Should I persist in my efforts? As Peace told her story, and the ladies voices joined in singing their theme song of living “positively,” those questions vanished forever. I know Peace and that is enough.
You, too, have a chance to support the work of the Kellermann Foundation and have a fun while you are at it. Aug. 25, the 8th annual Kellermann’s Batwa Challenge 5K and 10K run/walk is set for 8 a.m. at Pioneer Park in Nevada City. Registration forms at http://www.batwachallenge.com
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