Recent IU graduate finds defining moment of her college career in Uganda

Post by IU Newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre:

I applied for the summer journalism course “Reporting on HIV/AIDS in Africa” through The Media School at IU as a cheat to put off graduating from IU. I refused to leave my Bloomington home for the “real world” before I had to.

Although I knew I had a lot to learn about anti-retroviral therapies, the biological mechanisms of HIV transmission and health care policy, I was unprepared for the life-changing people I would meet in Uganda.

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Annie Brackemyre stands overlooking Kampala outside of the African Center for Media Excellence. | Photo provided by Annie Brackemyre

Along with nine other journalism students and two professors, I departed in May for Uganda’s capital, Kampala. Once we arrived in the country, our class transitioned into an internship at the Daily Monitor, Uganda’s largest privately owned newspaper.

We took our places in a cramped room just off the bullpen and spent two and half weeks reporting on various aspects of HIV prevention and treatment in Uganda.

I knew I wanted to write about the intersection of domestic violence and HIV but was waiting for my angle.

Before this trip, I had travelled abroad to China and London with other IU programs. But this particular experience as a reporter gave me access to a foreign culture that was out of reach in my previous study abroad experiences.

With an official Ugandan press credential (which still unnerves my American sensibilities about a free and independent press), I had access to executive directors at top non-governmental organizations and senior government officials.

Then I met the woman who changed both my reporting and my entire worldview.

I agreed to use a pseudonym, Grace, in my story because I was reporting on a double taboo in Uganda: violence against women and HIV. Grace was worried about her children being discriminated against if her neighbors discovered her HIV status.

Despite the language barrier — she spoke a little English and I don’t speak any Luganda, the major language of Uganda — Grace opened up to me about the violent abuse she experienced at the hands of her husband.

We talked about gender power dynamics and what it means to be a woman in both Uganda and the U.S.

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The class stands outside of the African Center for Media Excellence on their second day in Uganda. | Photo by IU professor Jim Kelly

She told me about her husband’s affairs, a culturally accepted product of unequal gender dynamics in Uganda, and her inability to negotiate condom use with him.

If she asked, he would beat her. If she threatened to refuse sex, he withheld money for their children’s school fees.

Grace was widowed in 2000 when her husband died from an AIDS-related illness. It took her 11 more years to regain the financial and emotional stability to begin treatment for her own HIV.

I took extensive notes to make sure my reporting was accurate and the quotes were verbatim, but I remember our entire conversation, almost word for word.

When I first told my friends and family that I would be embarking on a month-long trip to Africa, most assumed I would work for an NGO or other aid organization. Most of them tried to hide their shock or confusion when I told them that I was going to Uganda to learn from Ugandans.

And that’s exactly what happened.

I learned about adaptability and flexibility when the internet and phone lines crashed in the newsroom. I learned identity, roots and cultural heritage. And Grace taught me about the importance of reporting.

In one conversation, Grace taught me what my journalism professors had been trying to instill in me for three years, the power of an individual’s story.

I arrived in Uganda thinking that I wanted to write a policy piece. I didn’t understand how one anecdote could be more powerful than focusing on statistics.

Nearly half of all women in Uganda experience partner violence. In a country of 40 million people, only 13 domestic violence shelters operate nationwide. I had to fly halfway across the world to understand what these statistics mean for real people in their day-to-day lives.

I always try to be an empathetic person. But I needed to sit across a desk from Grace, inside the gender-based violence shelter that she now works with, watching her fidget with her pill bottles, to begin to grasp how violence against women and HIV wreak havoc.

“I needed school fees for our children. I needed food. I wanted to work outside of the home but he refused me to work. If I told him, he would refuse to pay for me and our children. I had no choice,” Grace said.

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Brackemyre poses overlooking the Rwenzori Mountains. The class took a weekend excursion to camp in the mountains that divide the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda. | Photo provided by Annie Brackemyre

“He didn’t tell me if he tested [for HIV] but I think he knew. He was always taking medicine. I would ask, ‘Why are you taking so many pills? What could these be?’ He ignored me and did not suggest safe sex. Now I know he knew his status and still forced sex with me.”

She told me that her husband’s death probably saved her life.

I couldn’t have told this story from a traditional classroom setting. I had to be in Uganda, at the heart of the 1980s pandemic.

I hope I did Grace’s story justice. It weighed heavily on me to make sure I did.

Back home in Bloomington, the reverse culture shock isn’t easy. Even my 2006 Scion with duct tape on the trunk seems unnecessary. My small antique map collection feels obscene.

In a few weeks I’ll be an IU alumnus. I’ll pack up my Bloomington apartment and move for my new job in Baltimore.

Although I’m thankful for all my Little 500 and homecoming memories, opportunities like meeting Grace are the defining moments of both my journalism training and my IU experience.

Brackemyre will have a story about Grace published in the Daily Monitor in the coming weeks.

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