Brian Byamukama (known by many as Bryne Comrade) from Mbale in Uganda, has been providing condoms, HIV testing and other potentially life saving services to a hidden network of LGBT people in rural areas for three years. But mounting hostility caused his organisation to go into hiding in October. He tells his story for World AIDS Day.
Uganda is not an easy place to live if you are LGBT. Not only is homosexuality a crime, punishable by life imprisonment, you are more likely to be living with HIV than your fellow countrymen. In Uganda, 7% of the general population has HIV, but this rises to 13% among LGBT people.
I set up Rural Movement Initiative [RUMI] in 2013 to deal with human rights violations and health. Part of our work is to help people who identify as LGBT or MSM (men who have sex with men) understand about HIV. We provide a range of things including condoms, lubricants, HIV testing, counselling, and referrals for treatment if needed. We treat the whole person.
Many LGBT people are too shy to go to health centres to get services as they face a lot of discrimination when they get there. There is an idea that you can contaminate people somehow. I came out as bisexual the same year as I opened RUMI and I’ve experienced many difficult situations since.
Once I went to get tested for HIV and I realised the doctor did not want to touch me. They separated me from the rest of the people in the clinic. That really brought my heart down. If it can happen to me, who can stand up for myself, what will happen to those who cannot speak out?
In December last year our office was broken into. What little property and money we had was stolen but we believe their main intention was to steal confidential documentation about our clients, some of whom are living with HIV, and many of whom are not open about their sexuality.
We relocated to another location. After what happened we could only afford to rent one room so we were operating out of a much smaller space. Word must have gotten out about RUMI’s work because people started complaining to our new landlord. We carried on as best as we could and things stayed quiet until October this year.
Then our landlord showed up and started threatening us and calling us bad names. It attracted quite a crowd. We were really speechless. We did not want to provoke the situation as we were worried about having our documents seized again, which could expose a lot of our clients. We just picked up what we could, the most important stuff, and carried it to my house.
It was then that I learnt about the International HIV/AIDS Alliance’s Rapid Response Fund, which issues emergency grants of up to $20,000 to organisations like mine in 29 countries when stigma, discrimination and violence are threatening HIV services for LGBT people and MSM. The fund only began in October and has already had more than 235 applications, showing the scale of the problems faced.
Within three weeks the Alliance had helped to relocate us somewhere bigger and less well known. We resumed work on 26th October, 2016. We now have three rooms to work out of and the staff and our clients feel more comfortable.
We do not want to tell everyone where we are in case we face trouble again but word is reaching the LGBT community. Since we’ve been in our new premises, around 100 new clients have come. We used to get around five drop-ins a day but recently that has doubled. People are now coming from outside the district, asking for condoms, lubricants and testing kits. We are ready and willing but we don’t have enough funds to help everyone and we are praying to set up a fully equipped clinic to respond to such cases.
I am happy that we have a few success stories amidst the homophobic environment.
I’m still feeling the consequence of what happened. A few week’s ago my house was attacked in the night. Stones were thrown at my windows and some were broken. I am fearful for my safety and I have concerns for the future. I am worried that people are going to suffer a lot, not because they are ignorant – they know what they need to do to stay safe, or more and more people do anyway – but because they can’t get the services they need.
Many issues are going on in rural areas and not many people are speaking out about it. That’s why RUMI exists, to speak out and to give people access to services. Our work is making a difference, even if it is small and I am happy that we have a few success stories amidst the homophobic environment.
A new report on HIV prevalence in Mbale district shows that only 42% of parents talk to their children about HIV. Many young MSM don’t know they can contract HIV through anal sex since little or nothing is said about it. For World AIDS Day we are going to hold an event to raise awareness about these issues, inviting key health officials from the district. I’m committed to getting the message out there, and I remain hopeful – I know we have the skills and the knowledge to help people.
To learn more about the Alliance’s Rapid Response Fund visit rapidresponsefund.org
To learn more about RUMI you can visit their Facebook page facebook.com/rumimbale
Find out more about World AIDS Day at worldaidsday.org