Milly Katana has lived with HIV for 23 years and she is still growing strong. She leant about her HIV status in 1992 soon after leaving the university and was working as a financial controller in a big organisation that was involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Katana says in the organisation, they used to recieve many clients, some of them looking sickly and others looking healthy. Because of her proximity to HIV issues, she felt that if so many people looking healthy could have HIV, she should also test for it. "I felt at risk so I went voluntarily and tested and my fears were confirmed. I had the HIV virus. I was terrified and tormented," she explains.
Two decades ago, HIV was indeed a death sentence. The images of HIV at that time were of dying people.
"What I did was to prepare for my death, and one of the things that I did was to buy a piece of land and quickly, as long as my energy allowed, put up a house where I would die. I knew I did not have much time to live," she says.
Katana built her first house in Mbuya in 1995 and she continued doing her work as an accountant. As a fresh graduate, she did not have a fat salary, but it was enough to help her build a house, in which she would die. "That was my ultimate aim, and I was blessed with the determination and I accomplished the project."
She recalls that as years went by there was a breakthrough in research and in AIDS prevention and treatment. Antiretroviral drugs were more readily available and she learnt that HIV was not a death sentence and people could live a healthy and long life.
"I had to work with my mind and accept my new status. Since then, I determined to move on with my life. I went back to school and specialised in accounting. I got a masters in business administration, specialising in accounting," she says.
But midway Katana changed her career from being an accountant to being a public health specialist, which she is practicing now. She went to the University of Daresaalam and did a masters in public health, then proceeded to the University of Stellenbosch in Cape Town in South Africa, where she did a postgraduate diploma in managing HIV.
Having got her second masters degree, she now found her career in mainstream public health practice. She got a job with the United Nations Development Programme as a global advisor on HIV in the workplace and has worked in different parts of the world.
When she finally came back and settled in Uganda, she worked with the International AIDS Alliance as a country representative. She implemented programmes that focused on building the capacity of people living with HIV to participate in their own care.
Buying another house
When she had just returned, an opportunity came along. A friend of hers was selling his house, in Luzira Portbell on Kabalega drive.
Katana had turned her phone off and when she woke up in the morning, she saw a text message," Milly, I am selling my house." The message was sent by a couple she knew very well. They were her friends and Katana often visited their house as a guest.
Katana picked a phone and called the man's wife and asked her if the sale of the house was with her consent. The wife confirmed that they had, as a couple, decided to sell the house. She then put in a bid and they gave her the property in 2008.
Having bought this property, Katana decided to sell off her old house in Mbuya. "This is a very good neighbourhood, just eight kilometres from the city centre. I can easily walk to work if there is no tear gas," she jokes.
Katana says that for every person who tests HIV-positive, there is always a story of their life, and the circumstances are different. For her, she had very supportive siblings and parents.
Unlike the majority of women living with HIV/AIDS, she had the privilege of being educated, thus was economically empowered to do what she put her heart to.
"I am saying this because many people have been devastated by HIV because they lost hope and yet this should not be the case today because we have come a long way in the fight against AIDS. When I built my house there was little hope to live, but I built a house for me to die in," she stresses.
Adding, " But now If somebody knows their HIV status, they can put up a home for them to live in with their families because there is hope for us to live like everybody else. I have some friends who have actually gone beyond the average life expectancy of Uganda, yet they have HIV. We should be determined to put up homes to live in. If somebody can do it everybody else should do it."
Katana attributes her living long with the virus, first, to her determination to live positively. Her openness about her status, and most importantly, to campaigns for improved knowledge and access to ARVs and prevention.
Katana recalls that at the time she was diagnosed with HIV, anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) were available at the Joint Clinical Research Centre (JCRC), but a monthly dose used to cost sh1.6m. She could not afford.
"But I used my network of friends all over the world to get the drugs. Those who changed to other drugs would donate the old stock particularly from France and England," she recalls. Within two months of taking ARVs, the virus could no longer be detected swimming in her blood.
However, she had to continue taking ARVs because the virus hides in tissues within the body. Once someone stops taking ARVs, the virus starts to multiply again. She has been taking ARVs for 10 years now, and stresses that strict adherence to the drugs is paramount.