At the mention of her name, one can easily recognise her from a number of platforms but more vividly from her fight against stigma as concerns HIV/AIDS in Uganda. Being an HIV activist, she has traversed various media empowering the youth. Her confidence has grown over the years as she has gained the strength and courage to share her inspirational story.
Ruth Elizabeth Namutebi, 28, is an architectural draftswoman and founder of an NGO – Daria Kayitesi Safe Space.
She was born on January 4, 1992, at Nsambya hospital-makindye division. At only seven years of age, Namutebi lost her mother to HIV/AIDS and life has since taken a different turn. One of her dreams has always been to share her story worldwide and to discourage stigma since she has been a victim of the same herself.
Learning about her HIV status
Namutebi noted that she didn’t know much about HIV/AIDS and neither did she know that it’s what caused her mother’s demise.
“At that time I thought she had died because of blindness, which is one of the effects she suffered from being HIV positive,” she narrated.
It took her years to find out her HIV status and that was when she was 13 years old.
“I was raised in an extended family by my aunt. I continuously fell sick, and time came when I had to start on the tuberculosis treatment. As a young girl, I didn’t know what to make of it,” she said.
“All my life, I’ve been falling sick but when I got to primary six, I was put on TB treatment for a while. That’s when I started to think of the possibility of being positive. However, this didn’t hit me so much then,” added Namutebi.
Missing school was becoming inevitable for Namutebi as she “constantly fell sick at St Lawrence School Ssonde, where I missed a term and eventually had to join a new school.”
With the ongoing TB treatment, Namutebi, sooner than later, was advised by the doctors to start her ARVs immediately. For this reason, she stayed home for a full term to monitor the reaction of the drug in her system.
Eventually, she joined Muyenga High school, which is advantageously near International Hospital Kampala where went for routine check-ups from school.
Namutebi said that her aunt finally disclosed to her, her HIV status.
“It didn’t make sense at all, I didn’t hurt. I understood what it meant, but not to a certain depth. As time went on, it started to hit me as I was in my Senior two second term.”
Namutebi notes that from that time, her depression and unhappiness started. She felt like some of her dreams like getting married, having children and a family would never come true.
Yearning for acceptance and love
Because of the depression and the urge to seek acceptance and consolation, Namutebi decided to disclose her status to a close friend. Unfortunately, the end results were regrettable for her.
“As time went on, I disclosed my secret to a friend, in the name of trying to seek acceptance. I thought that she would keep it but before the day ended, someone else knew my HIV status. That was the beginning of all my sorrow and problems. Since then, I was stigmatised and people would point fingers at me,” she narrated.
Instead of being accepted, she was rejected. Worse still, her medical condition became a barrier in her studies as she would keep crossing from Muyenga high to IHK. It was not long before she her medical situation, coupled with stigma took a toll on her entire being.
HIV becomes an academic barrier
“At one point I got fed up of being stigmatised. So, there are days I would lie about being sick in order to stay at home. I knew the situation had got out of hand as everyone at school would talk about it.”
She pointed out instances where during class lessons when they would be learning about HIV and how it spreads and how her classmates would always gaze at her. Thus, she started dodging classes and exams, something which in the long run, affected her grades.
Getting back on her feet and falling yet again
Having a young sister who looks up to her, she knew she needed to pull up her socks since her O’ Level final exams were also on the way.
“Because I grew up in a home where I was afraid to disappoint my family, I couldn’t afford to give up. So, I realised I needed to become stronger, wake up and work hard to do something about my life. I decided to read, learnt how to pray, fast and dedicated my life to God. Eventually, things started changing as I became academically strong, thus performing well in S.4,” Namutebi said.
With a dream of being an architect, she took PEM/ENT as a course in her level. Despite her willingness to continue pursuing her dream, the stigmatisation in that same school could not let her.
Luckily, her grandmother convinced her father to change her to another school, as he was a bit hesitant to do so.
Unfortunately, everything she was running away from, were met at this new school, Kakungulu Memorial School in Kibuli, as she met OBs and OGs who continuously disclosed her HIV status to the rest.
Namutebi mentioned that her entire Advanced Level was so disorganized as she was unsettled. Her sister had been admitted in Butabika hospital and she had to be there for her.
“Life was abit tricky and i completely lost concentration academically. I got to a point where I was just waiting for school to end. I would just open my book and literally cry all through prep time,” she explained emotionally.
Despite repeating senior five, she finally completed her A-level.
Pursuing her dream
However much she had tried to apply in many universities including Makerere and Kyambogo, she was denied a vacancy because of low cut off points. She knew that she couldn’t repeat S.6 as she had already repeated S.5. She had 12 points.
Upon seeking advice from a career guider, she applied at a technical institute, and luckily, she got a scholarship at Uganda Technical College, Kyema -Masindi for a 2-year diploma course in architecture.
However, before she would join, her health condition had worsened as she suffered from intense ulcers. Her CD count was also very low due to the inaccessibility to drugs. After a month of poor health, she reported to the institute in 2013.
“When I went back to study, I had scars from head to toe. You could just look at me and tell that I had a certain disease. So, the stigma began. These students didn’t know what I was going through. At some point, a lady asked me to work on my skin as it looked bad,” she narrated.
Isolation and rejection returned and her depression kicked in all over again, to an extent where she attempted suicide after swallowing 90 pills. Namutebi even vacated the girls’ wing and moved into the boys’ where she shared a bed with a sympathetic male friend of hers for a month.
“He would see me cry every single night and he would ask. However, I couldn’t risk telling anyone about my HIV status because I didn’t want history to repeat itself. Nonetheless, he took good care of me and because he wanted to ensure that I don’t attempt to commit suicide; whichever pills (even ARVs) he could find in my bag would be thrown away.
A hardened heart
Namutebi reached a point where she stopped caring about fellow students’ thoughts. She would only lean on this friend as her “rock”, as she described him. She shut other students out of her life and focussed on her studies. When she finally attained her diploma, she started doing architectural work with several companies to date.
Denied a scholarship due to her HIV status
When Makerere and Kyambogo couldn’t admit her after so many years of applying, her immediate option was Nkozi University. However, tuition fees seemed high and therefore she resorted to seeking scholarships from universities overseas.
She would send her results to the administrators of these universities and even when most of them were okay with her results, they would turn her down whenever things involved her HIV status.
Having invested so much time and money in the processes that were involved in applying, Namutebi was left with nothing but disappointment.
However, she decided to apply to the University of Nairobi in Kenya and got admitted but still the tuition fees were so high, “when the plan fails, don’t change the dream but rather the plan” she chipped in.
She resorted to writing letters to various influential people, desperately hoping to be helped.
“I wrote letters to Rt. Hon Rebecca Kadaga, Hon. Nakiwala Kiyingi, Janet Museveni, Barrack Obama, Winnie Byanyima and the Rotary International President etc. I was that desperate.”
She got “regret” as feedback from local fields but never in the international scene. However, Namutebi has no regrets in this move because she believes that one day, her cry will be heard.
“I keep telling my story because I hope that it will land in to the right ears and someone will get to help me. For me it’s not yet over,” she said.
Today, Namutebi is working on various projects in the architectural field and has gained five (5) years’ experience. She is also a motivational speaker and volunteer. She is a founder of an NGO-(Daria Kayitesi Safe space) with the purpose of helping people living with HIV/AIDS.
Through social media, visiting schools, hospitals, rotary clubs, & churches, she does HIV activism and she has been attending The Mentorship Class (TMC) where she is yet to graduate as a mentee.
Namutebi has also worked for Ruparelia Group(Draftsman), Bayimba Festival Foundation, Volunteer (Annually) Spear Motors Limited, Software (Autocad) Instructor Hwan Sung Industries Limited, Graphics Designer and other projects.
The courageous lady said that she has acquired countless opportunities and therefore thankful to God.
Before concluding the interview, ‘Madam Architect’ like she brands herself said,
“My greatest achievement has been to break the barrier of fear; to share my story. Sometimes I imagine that if I had kept quiet about it, I wouldn’t have been able to change so many people’s lives. Hence, it’s a big thing for me and I am glad I can finally do it. Therefore, I’m not ashamed that the world knows I am HIV positive.”
A bit of Namutebi’s Love life
Despite the fact that her teenage boyfriend accepted her regardless of her HIV status, his friends and parents weren’t welcoming. When pressure from his family increased, he ended the relationship.
“I dread dating because of the need to explain myself to this new person. I sometimes shun men who show interest in me because I know that once they get to know about my status, it will be over,” she said.
Namutebi discloses that she has been in a couple of relationships and she always ‘parades’ her status right from the start. But as of now, she single and focusing on achieving more in her career.