This coming December 1 will be World AIDS Day once again, and you might (should) wear a red ribbon to commemorate the day.
A short while ago I was in a classroom in Bweyogerere covering the visit of the RTI International Chief Executive Officer, Wayne Holden, and some of his Global Executives. Part of what they do, along with USAID, DFID (UKAID) and the government, is support educational programmes.
One of those programmes, strangely enough, promotes reading in vernacular. So I was in this classroom full of children reading schoolbooks in Luganda while a group of Americans who had no clue of the language, nodded in appreciation of something.
I was nodding at something different – the story the teacher was reading out to them, in Luganda, was about Philly Bongoley Lutaaya, and his role in raising awareness about HIV/AIDS.
The children were reading along and looking up in silence and serious attention as she enunciated her words carefully for their learning benefit, and they imbibed everything about the Ugandan hero.
I knew for a fact, as I watched those children, that my own did not know much about Philly Bongoley Lutaaya besides the comments I kept making every time I played his music.
As the teacher read his story I recalled his visiting us at King’s College Budo, and how I felt when I got to shake his hand. That was a mark for me that helped me overcome the stigma of how contagious the disease was.
And I still feel the rush of adrenaline I felt when he played cricket up there, with John Nagenda, and after swinging for one ball, collapsing in a heap to a collective gasp that seemed to go round the whole school.
He got up smiling after a panicked group had raced to him, unsure what they were going to have to do – it had been a small prank.
The man was a hero. A heavy-on-the-mind Ugandan hero.
I was sad that my children don’t know enough about him and that their schooling in english was neglecting these lessons, but I was happy that many other children in the countryside are getting this exposure.
And then it hit me that the gap was my responsibility.
That evening, I went home and asked them if they remembered him – and the name was familiar, so I assigned them the task of doing research on Philly Bongoley Lutaaya and presenting their papers to me within a couple of days.
To help them along, I played his music for a couple of days and was myself refreshed by how much he promoted tourism in his songs and videos, how much he promoted Uganda’s (not just Buganda) cultures, his contribution to health awareness, and how he ably demonstrated the fun and creative side of Ugandans.
I eagerly awaited the children’s papers and was pleasantly surprised when they handed them in Saturday morning – and I discovered from them that that very day was Philly Lutaaya Day!
As I was reading through their papers, celebrations were being held in Kanoni, Gomba District, which the official flyer I eventually received said were “to mobilise wanainchi to take action by coming out openly to share what they are doing as individuals, as communities and as a nation to STOP HIV as Uganda moves towards zero infections, zero discrimination and zero deaths.”
I couldn’t go to Kanoni that day, but we spent the day thinking about Philly Lutaaya, and that evening lit candles in his honour as we watched his music videos and appreciated further – adults and children alike – his importance in our history.
On World AIDS Day this December 1, we will pay attention to him again, as our Ugandan hero of the day, as well as address the challenge: “What are you doing to stop HIV?”
All triggered by a Luganda story book being read out to schoolchildren in a classroom in Bweyogerere, by a schoolteacher whose name I did not get but who also represents another group of Ugandan heroes out there making a massive difference in this society of ours.