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Witchcraft and HIV: Nakato's Story » Women's Courage

Witchcraft and HIV: Nakato's Story

February 28th, 2013 by kseiger Leave a reply »

“Many of us celebrate our ‘Africanism’ and heritage by praising our sense of community, our extended family relationships, and our togetherness. We hail our openness and love of sharing stories, but how many of us can feel free and comfortable talking about HIV/AIDS, let alone give testimonies of our personal experiences? I call upon you to… learn and build a community of support where a culture of sharing and discussion remains one way of looking HIV/AIDS in the face and vowing to live and fight on. It would be a pity if we as women do not learn from others’ experiences and realize how important it is to know our HIV status.”

-Angelina Wapakhabulo, Positive Women Leaders of Uganda


Wapakhabulo’s statement not only addresses the culture of silence around HIV/AIDS but also expresses the value in learning from others’ encounters with the disease. This quote is the inspiration of this week’s blog, as I introduce a woman named Nakato and detail her experience with HIV/AIDS in Uganda. My blogs have focused on how cultural practices, sexual behavior norms, and male sexual privilege promote the transmission and spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa, namely Zambia. This week, I wanted to share a narrative of a woman living with HIV to provide a more organic sense of the struggle, rather than the overarching complications or roadblocks that typically come to mind. I came across I Dare to Say: African Women Share Their Stories of Hope and Survival in Green Library and was struck by the powerful, detailed true stories of African women. Femrite, the Uganda Women Writers Association encouraged many women to tell their life stories, offering an in-depth glimpse into how injustice has followed them every step of the way throughout childhood and into adulthood.

Nakato’s story demonstrates how cultural beliefs in witchcraft, lack of education about HIV/AIDS, and stigma surrounding the disease impact women’s rights to love, health, and support networks. In 1976 in the Mityana district of Uganda, Nakato was born a breach twin. Because she was born two hours later than her twin and caused difficulty during labor for her mother, she was condemned to an ill-fate by her family. Cultural belief was that Nakato should be starved as punishment for the difficult birth, and she thus did not receive any breast milk while her twin sister was breast-fed. Family members referred to her not by name, but by musota (demon), mbuzi (snake), musiru (goat), or murderer (omutemu) because her difficult birth had almost resulted in her mother’s death. She was years behind her twin in schooling and was forced to do manual labor and take care of her mother’s children from her second husband. Cultural stigma about breach babies thus created many social and health implications for Nakato.

It is important to understand the role of cultural beliefs in social determinants of health. In Nakato’s case, her desire to be loved and respected caused her to be submissive and gullible in her relationships with men, abstaining from asking them personal questions or about where they went on the weekends. When her flesh tore during her first labor, causing a large wound, her boyfriend continued to have sexual intercourse with her despite the health hazard and excruciating pain. He told her it would help heal the wound and she believed him. When her baby was gravely ill and her boyfriend told her not to bring him to the hospital, she consented and the baby died two weeks later. When her boyfriend was on his deathbed with tuberculosis, she found out that he had a wife and children. It was not until much later that she found out that he had AIDS.

Nakato ventured from man to man, longing for connection and the provision of a home. Lacking economic stability left her at the mercy of men who treated her wrongly. After being told repeatedly throughout her childhood that she was unintelligent, she began to not trust her instincts and believe her inner thoughts were irrational. Lack of empowerment precluded her from a strong sense of self or autonomy.

What I found to be most startling was that Nakato believed HIV was transmitted by witchcraft, and people could be rid of the disease if their body was not a “favorable” habitat. Because she did not know how the disease was transmitted, she never inquired about or used condoms and unknowingly spread the disease to upwards of ten men. Despite this lack of access to important information about HIV, people in the community still shunned and stigmatized those with the disease. Nakato was a target or ridicule because of her actions and HIV status, of which she was totally unequipped to protect herself against. At the end of her account, after learning more about the disease, she expressed sadness and guilt about transmitting it to other men. Ultimately, Nakato went to work for TASO, an AIDS support organization, helping other women, while educating herself and finding a network of support.

For me, Nakato’s story puts the spread of HIV into perspective. The factors that contribute to the rapid transmission of the disease include lack of education and an environment where women feel that asserting themselves or talking about HIV with their partners will cause their partners to leave them. Female empowerment starts at the family level, during childhood. Thus, not only do efforts need to be taken to educate women about HIV but steps must be taken to empower women so that they can rely on their own brains and hands to make decisions and make a living. In this way, self-worth is a preventative measure against HIV.


I Dare to Say: African Women Share Their Stories of Hope and Survival. Hilda Twongyeirwe. Lawrence Hill Books. Chicago. 2006.



  1. drewf says:

    Kira, what a powerful post. While I am moved and angered by Nakato’s story of exploitation and prejudice, I cannot help but wonder about the motives and education of the men in this situation. The more we have learned about women’s suffering, the more I have wanted to know about the men that play a role in this suffering. How can it be possible that women can be given so little respect and consideration? I feel that there needs to be better education for both men and women- not only to improve awareness about HIV, but to teach both sexes the value of women.

  2. mraddawi says:

    Kira, Nakato’s story is tragic but at the same time motivates me to try to help, whether that be through education or donating for accessible testing and medical services for women like Nakato. This always makes me wonder–how can we be sensitive to cultural differences while protecting the health and well being of women like Nakato? If witchcraft is a real thing to many people in Africa, do we go in and say “that is not true”–this is how HIV is transmitted? How do we approach cultural differences? This is something I struggled with in Tanzania. But, I personally tend to believe that health is the priority over sensitivity-at the end of the day, it could save women who otherwise wouldn’t value the use of a condom. Nakato’s story really breaks my heart.

  3. chierika says:

    Kira, as a major proponent of the use of narratives in the Global Health sphere, I found this blog so interesting. You did a wonderful job telling Nakato’s story and really highlighting the issues that a lack of education can cause. The narrative really showcased her motives and ignorance, I think that her story is similar to various troubled young females that use sexual love to fill an emotional void. For me, stories like these really highlight the rapid spread of HIV, for there are many Nakatos in the world filled with false information and looking for sexual attention. Great post!

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