18 October 2017

Uganda: Young Nurse Who Battled Rakai's Early HIV Storm Is Now Kyotera MP

When HIV/Aids was first reported in parts of present-day Kyotera district, only a few wanted to associate with people suffering from the then mysterious killer disease that left its sufferers looking like walking skeletons.

Only close family members stood by the afflicted. But for Robina Ssentongo Nakasirye, the newly elected Kyotera Woman MP, her professional calling as a nurse took her closer to Aids patients and their families.

"Caring for people infected and affected by HIV/Aids has been my preoccupation for the past 30 years, and because I felt that their voice was not well heard, I decided to join politics so that I could be their voice," Ssentongo told The Observer on October 12.

Kyotera is one of the five new districts that became effective on July 1, 2017 and thus Ssentongo, who stood on a DP card, becomes the new district's Woman MP. Her illustrious work in HIV/Aids care under Kitovu Mobile Aids Organisation (KMO) made her a tough candidate to beat for the ruling NRM, in an area perceived to be an NRM stronghold.

The 56-year-old had no mark on the political scene until after the 2011 elections, when talk of a new district of Kyotera started.

"As director and later chief executive officer of KMO, I was responsible for the entire fundraising programs for the organization. That made me travel widely in and out of the country. That is when I realised that because I was a CEO of a local organisation, there were offices I could not easily access," Ssentongo says.

"But through my work with the local communities, I realised their issues were not being listened to, maybe because there was no one to amplify them; I decided to upgrade to a position where the voices of people suffering could be given due attention."

The hope for the creation of Kyotera district collapsed back then, and she changed her focus to representing the unified Rakai district. She stood as an independent for the Rakai Woman MP seat in the 2016 elections, but controversially lost to Juliet Kinyamatama.

"2016 was my worst experience, because I knew I was going to win; and I indeed won but the [Electoral Commission] declared somebody else. That is when I realised I had joined something tough," Ssentongo said.

She went on to successfully challenge Kinyamatama's election at the High court in Masaka, but as she awaited the Court of Appeal ruling, Kyotera became a district.

She surprised many when she got nominated as a DP candidate and for many, including DP vice president Fred Mukasa Mbidde, there was no way she could beat the NRM candidate Rachael Nakitende. She, however, polled 21,731 votes against Nakitende's 15,511 votes.

"I decided to stand as DP because they were willing to work with me and also, because my ideals rhyme well with their ideology. I have always wanted to see a just and transparent society where human rights are respected," Ssentongo said.

She was persuaded to join DP by the Masaka Woman MP, Mary Babirye Kabanda, who promised to support her through the campaigns. This meant financial and technical support.

Kabanda ensured that all the DP MPs as well as other leaders at various levels kept in Kyotera to campaign and lay strategy for their new recruit, popularly known as Maama Kitovu Mobile.

Being that Kitovu Mobile has directly or indirectly benefited each household in the district, it became difficult for the NRM to counter Ssentongo's popularity.

This partly explains why even members of the state machinery quietly worked for her, including leaking to her camp the election day strategy that had been designed to give the NRM candidate undeserved victory.

THE JOURNEY

In 1987, Sister Ursula Sharpe, an Irish nun working with the Medical Missionaries of Mary, got touched by the suffering of Aids patients that were being admitted at Kitovu hospital, where she worked.

HIV/Aids was a new disease at the time and many people thought it was an aggressive form of witchcraft that left entire villages in Rakai deserted.

Being that it was only a year after the guerrilla war that brought President Yoweri Museveni and the NRM to power, the social service structure was at its worst. And because of this, prevention and treatment plans were not yet in place and many spouses, caregivers and children were infected with HIV and many died within two years.

Patients would literally go to Kitovu to die, but due to biting poverty, their relatives could not even find means of transporting the bodies back home for burial.

In this depressing setting, Sharpe worked with Ssentongo, who had just graduated from Nsambya School of Nursing. They started a mobile care program for HIV/Aids patients in Rakai district where the disease started.

Instead of patients and their relatives coming to suffer at Kitovu hospital, Sharpe and Ssentongo would drive and find them in their respective homes.

As the disease spread to the then unified Masaka district, Sharpe's Kitovu Mobile Aids Care program was rolled out to other parts of Masaka Catholic diocese, this time with an expanded scope to offer orphans and families support.

"The programs went on evolving, responding to the needs at the time because there was a lot of suffering. These needs included pyscho-social support and general welfare for people living positively with Aids," Ssentongo said.

In 1995, Sharpe left the country for a long holiday and left Ssentongo in charge of the now growing organisation. On return, Sharpe left Ssentongo to continue running the organisation, and she chose to play an advisory role until 2000 when she left the country for good and left the organisation under Masaka diocese.

In 2005 when Masaka diocese registered it as a company limited by guarantee, Ssentongo, by then a graduate of Human and Social Studies from the University of South Africa, and a holder of diplomas in Development Studies (Dublin), Research Methods (Makerere University), and Counselling and Guidance (Mbarara University of Science and Technology), was appointed the CEO.

She went on to study for a master's degree in Health Services Management at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.

"I have no intention of abandoning my work, but I want to add on to the care for people infected and affected by Aids with a bigger voice and a bigger potential to fundraise," Ssentongo said.

She hopes that her parliamentary office can make her a good ambassador for KMO and by extension, the families affected by Aids.

"At KMO, we have been running a program for the older people funded by the Stephen Lewis foundation in Canada; I would love to see these people benefiting from the government program for the elderly, because they suffer a lot caring for their orphaned grandchildren," Ssentongo said.

GUNS ON CERVICAL CANCER

"Political parties don't help the people but instead benefit those holding leadership positions. They're simply vehicles that lead us to these positions but the needy people don't think of the political parties when they are suffering; they want to see a leader attending to their needs," Ssentongo said.

"What you do as a leader is what matters; parties don't count when one has no food to feed his children, or lacks the means to take a sick child to hospital or when a mother goes to a health centre and she can't get adequate care."

Using the KMO model, Ssentongo plans to launch mobile clinics to specifically reach out to mothers and offer care and support for cervical cancer.

"Testing and treatment of such cancers are available at regional referral hospitals but many women can't find transport to Masaka to get such medical services," she said.

"I have a double role as a parliamentarian and a development worker. Given the KMO experience, I know that access to quality education is a nightmare in the district. I want to strengthen the economic empowerment programs we had at KMO. I will keep an ear on the ground," Ssentongo said.

And that is how one selflessly impacts millions of lives and receives their reward in the form of a vote of absolute confidence.

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