Stigma towards HIV/Aids was at its peak during the 1990s and Reverend Canon Gideon Byamugisha faced a share of the wrath at the time. In 1992, Canon Byamugisha tested for HIV and the results were positive. He decided to test a few months after discovering that his wife, Kellen Byamugisha, succumbed to the disease on April 30, 1991.
“She died one week after complaining of headache, chest pain and backache.
The medical officers linked the symptoms to pneumonia and I believed that was what led to her death,” he says, adding, “However, after her burial, my sister-in-law, Eunice, revealed that my wife had tested for HIV and discovered she was infected. Eunice gave me medical documents which confirmed my late wife’s status.”
Canon Byamugisha did not know his status since the couple had never tested for HIV. “Even after discovering Kellen’s results, I did not go for a test until Eunice convinced me.”
He visited a famous HIV/Aids analysis centre at Baumann House. Two weeks later, he received the results. “The results did not shock me,” he says. What perturbed him, though, was how the medical personnel broke the news. They said, “Man of God, what are you going to do with these results?” Canon Byamugisha found the tone mocking and he responded, “God who created me will guide me on what to do next.”
He had the responsibility of looking after his two-year-old daughter, Mary Patience Byamugisha. After several tests, the baby’s results were negative.
How he got infected
Two things puzzle Canon Byamugisha to date; when and how he was infected with HIV. “People always ask how I got infected and I find it difficult to give an answer,” he says.
Canon Byamugisha recalls that growing up during Idi Amin’s regime in the 1970s, nurses at some health facilities had a tendency of using the one syringe and needle on 10 patients before replacing only the needle. He suspects that he might have been infected that way.
After testing positive, Canon Byamugisha learnt that there were many other people secretly testing for HIV and keeping the results to themselves.
“The disease was regarded as one for prostitutes, truck drivers and homosexuals, but there I was battling it. I felt the need stop this misconception by using myself as an example. I wanted to create awareness that regardless of societal status in society, anyone was at risk of contracting the disease.”
His openness was also motivated by the fact that he needed emotional and financial support from the community.
The reception from the public was divided. Some sympathised with him and started The Friends of Canon Gideon Foundation (FOCAGIFO), to raise money for his welfare.
Today, FOCAGIFO advocates for reduction of HIV/Aids prevalence through faith sector communities. Others scorned him for coming out, wondering why he was embarrassing the church.
“They said I should suffer for my sins alone, but I chose to ignore them.”
Over time, women who learnt of his widower status mounted pressure on him for a relationship. “They never believed I was living with HIV. They thought I was pretending and kept on saying if I did not marry them, who would?”
The pressure forced him to put out word that he was searching for a woman living with HIV/Aids and he did not mind if she had children. “I found a perfect match but she rejected the idea of marriage and was only interested in a causal relationship. My search led me to Pamela, a widow of my cousin, who had succumbed to HIV/Aids. They had no children.”
At first, Pamela was not interested in marriage because she was still grieving her late husband. Eventually though, she made up her mind and they were wedded in 1995. Today, they have two daughters aged 14 and 15, both HIV negative.
Canon Byamugisha, now 58, says his second marriage has survived storms because both parties are honest with each other. “We discussed the issue of condoms, children and our deceased partners, exhaustively. This helped us deal with the reality in our lives. Being of the same status, we always look out for each other, setting reminders to take our drugs. Our children are supportive.” The couple encourages other couples living with HIV to always be open and honest if they want their relationships to thrive.
On surviving the last 25 years
The clergyman says there is no magic to explain the last 25 years. “I do not live every day thinking about death. Instead, I think of how to make myself better in different aspects and make an impact on society.”
A supportive system of family, relatives and friends has motivated him to push on with life. However, the father of three says there have been consequences of publically declaring his status. “The stigma is still there. People look at us as sexually immoral and unserious.
“Some still wonder how a clergy man contracted the disease. Coming out has also affected my children. Sometimes, they are judged and criticised for my status, but I always advise them to respect themselves and handle bullies with dignity.”
In 2015, Canon Byamugisha was diagnosed with colon-rectal cancer.
He underwent chemotherapy treatments and surgery successfully. Currently, he is on post-surgery medication, and he hopes for a full recovery.
Who is he?
The Reverend Canon Gideon Byamugisha was born in 1959. He holds a Bachelors degree in Education from Makerere University, Masters in Applied and Contextual Theology from University of Birmingham, UK, and a Bachelors degree of Divinity from Bishop Tucker College (now Uganda Christian University).
He has received awards and recognitions for his fight against HIV/Aids, including the 2003 Help for Self-Award from Stromme Foundation, Norway, the 2007 Friends of Africa Award of Commitment, and the 2008 Distinguished and Exemplary Leadership Award from the Parliament of Uganda.
He has worked in different organisations, including Uganda Aids Commission and Straight Talk Foundation.