Ssese Islands: No Island Too Far

Travelling by a 50-horsepower canoe, Uganda’s Ssese Islands are a 3.5-hour ride south from Entebbe. As you coast up, then down the ocean-sized rollers, you’ll cross the equator. You’ll grow hypnotized by Lake Victoria’s enormity long before spotting the first speck of land.

In times past, these jungles were considered sacred – a home of the gods. Today spirit-worship remains a pillar of island lifestyle and fishermen routinely call upon witch doctors to cure and prevent disease. It seems, however, that the spirits have been impotent against the devastating sickness that has slipped through almost every thatched roof.

Partially through extreme promiscuity and rampant prostitution, the HIV/AIDS-rate in this beautiful archipelago has topped 90 percent. It is here, on these remote islands, where a man named Edward* met Jesus.

Today Edward celebrates his 15th anniversary with HIV.

The thirty-four year old Ugandan commemorates the occasion with friend and co-worker, Aim missionary Tessa, in a hotel lobby. Over a cup of coffee and slice of cake, he talks candidly about how he destroyed his life.

Edward’s father, a wealthy insurance executive, taught his son how to party at a young age. In his early teens Edward accompanied his father to bars and nightclubs, mingling among Uganda’s elite.

“I slept with a girl [for the first time] when I was 14,” he remembers.

The hedonism continued through his teens when Edward heard rumours of life aboard the Ssese Islands. Girls were leaving the mainland in droves, overcoming poverty as bartenders and prostitutes. At 17 Edward got a job in the island government because he spoke good English. As a pseudo customs authority, he granted women permission to settle on the islands — if they had sex with him first.

Edward considered himself a fairly lucky man until one day, while spending some time at home, his father confided some shattering news. “I’m HIV+,” he said. “Beware of girls.”

“You’re late,” Edward responded. He says he had already slept with over 20 women.

Over the next few months, Edward watched his father’s skin grow taught around the bones. He dreaded getting tested himself – but ignorance certainly wasn’t bliss. So one day Edward got drunk in preparation, fearing the worst. He tested positive.

Edward says he kept sleeping around; no one suspected a thing. That is, until a terrible rash broke out on his legs.

“My skin flaked like ashes” he says. Edward searched for a cure, and like his father spent all his money on ineffective medication. He was hiding his legs under long pants, but recalls the night he drunkenly took them off in front of a former girlfriend.

“She cried,” Edward remembers, upon realizing her mistake. He left humiliated, but heard later that she committed suicide the same night. “Edward,” she had said as he walked out of her apartment. “They told me [you had AIDS] but I didn’t believe…”

As the rash worsened, Edward hated himself. He kept his job, but was barely able to walk the first time he met Josh, an Aim worker.

Edward asked Josh why he should believe the “Good News” when Christian workers were ignoring the people’s basic needs. Josh returned to the island several days later with a creamy paste for Edward’s leg. It worked! And for Edward, this was miraculous proof that God cared for him.

“I bought a Bible…I looked behind at how many people died because of me,” he says.

“I asked God to take control.”

Edward left his lucrative job and began serving alongside Josh in island evangelism. Today he volunteers as a health worker alongside an Aim nurse, Tessa. Because he lives with AIDS himself, his message of hope is especially poignant to fellow islanders.

“They are my brothers and sisters,” says Edward, a solemn look crossing his face. “My happiness is to see when people are getting OK.”

Back in the lobby, Tessa encourages Edward to eat his cake. He ignores her, putting it in his pocket. It’s back to work – time to catch up with patients in a depressing public hospital. Later he gives up his anniversary cake to a hungry patient.

* All names have been changed to protect privacy.