• Day S I X •
Harvester Island Writers Workshop
Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022
Today it’s my joy to tell the story of my new friend Dorah Dunigan. She embodies my favorite things: a deep love for Jesus, an overcoming spirit, joy against the odds, and a quick, good-natured wit that she calls “clapping back.”
On Thursday, September 8, the day the world mourned the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Dorah and I sat disconnected from Wi-Fi and world news in a cabin on a remote Alaskan island sharing stories and tears. Here are some of hers.
Riding in a car for the first time, Dorah Dunigan absorbed every bump along Ugandan back roads with wonder. The farthest she had traveled in her seven-year-old life (Or was she eight, or nine? She didn’t know …) was her 40-minute roundtrip foot journey to fetch water from the nearest well. Little and often feverish, she only had to lug one 5-liter jerrycan of water back to the two-bedroom home where she slept in a hallway on a sack stuffed with dried grass. She stared out the car window, marveling at the impressive skyline showcasing buildings with real roofs, and a whirl of shops, honking horns, bicycles, and foot traffic in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala. The youngest of nineteen kids born from a polygamous father and six wives, Dorah was excited to be on her way to an orphanage.
Her adult relatives knew better. AidChild was a hospice for HIV-positive kids. Dorah was being taken there to die.
“And yet I live,” says the a 29 year-old Makerere University honors graduate in biomedical laboratory technology. Dorah is moving with purpose toward a Ph.D. and an HIV-free generation. HIV advocacy is her victory over the death sentence of her childhood.
Dorah’s first day at AidChild was an indelible blur. Everyone knew she had HIV but her. A kind nurse took her vitals. A little boy ran up, sized his shoes up next to her bare feet and offered to share his only pair with her. Another child gave her an unfamiliar object—a toy. For lunch, she had sweet potatoes, peas and watermelon, which she distinctly did not like. “I had never eaten watermelon before,” she says.
“Everyone was so excited to see me. I could not think of a time in my life ever when this was true,” says Dorah, whose mom died when she was a baby and whose strict, coffee-farming father had permitted her to say two phrases to him. “Good morning, Sir,” and “Good evening, Sir.” Both parents died of AIDS.
That first night in the orphanage, Dr. Nathanial Dunigan prayed for the kids and tucked them individually into bed. It was the first time Dorah had slept in a real bed.
If you recognize the name, it’s because Dorah Wanyana exchanged her clan name for the name of the one who taught her to hope—before she met the One who taught her to hope. Everyone called Dr. Dunigan “daddy.”
She fell asleep that night thinking this might be a good place.
“Dorah” and “I’m fine,” were the only English phrases she knew that first day at her new bilingual orphanage in 2002.
“I was not fine for sure,” she says.
Not yet anyway. That would come. As much as it can anyway for a young woman who lost her family, lost her childhood to illness, and has navigated anger at her parents for even bringing her into the world.
“They had a choice to make. I’m the last child. I used to wonder why they even gave birth to me. I wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t have the virus if they had never had me,” she says.
Quickly, her native Lugandan tongue learned the strange new English also spoken at AidChild. She also learned a new language of faith, one of love for a Jesus who had had His hand on her from the start.
Stigmas at the time meant that even at boarding school she was hesitant to take the antiretroviral meds that decrease the viral load of HIV. Fever and illness seemed better options than succumbing to the potential scorn of her peers. “At the end of the year it was time to progress to the next class, I would then take my meds so I could get my head back on and do what I needed to do to advance,” she says.
Looking back, the kindness and humanity she received at Aidchild—now known as Aidchild Leadership Institute, or A.L.I., and also as a model of HIV/AIDS care for the entire continent of Africa—placed a deep reservoir of resilience into her. Dr. Patrick Banura, now the National Advisor on Routine Immunization for the World Health Organization, treated Dorah and her friends with dignity. “He would examine us without gloves on, without making us feel like we were some kind of disgust to him. He would actually touch us!” she says.
That dignity planted the early seeds of a career trajectory.
In 2017, Dorah sat for her entrance exams at one of Africa’s top-ten institutions, where she received the number one score in the nation. Today, Dorah aims her intellect at the goal of an HIV-free generation. It impassions her and she can picture it. She plans to pursue microbiology and immunology at the graduate level.
“I want to be a researcher. HIV took my parents. It’s still killing people,” she says.
Dorah is devoted to breaking generational curses: HIV. The polygamous system her birth father adhered to. The lack of opportunity for Ugandan women, who are still treated like property, especially in Ugandan villages like the one where Dorah grew up. She is, to use one of her favorite phrases, clapping back.
Today, the institute has helped more than 3,000 kids. Of the original 120 children sent to live there (including Dorah) more than 90 are still living.
“There is hope for a tree that is cut down to sprout again. My life was for sure cut down. But I have the living water that is going to make my roots and shoots sprout again,” Dorah says. I hold onto Christ, this Jesus. He shows off through me with the joy I have.”
Her joy is contagious. Her determination to achieve an HIV-free generation is focused. And her plan to live a life of purpose—one that her family, her culture, her health, and the odds said couldn’t happen—continues in force.
“If I don’t do it, then who is going to do it? There has to be someone to do it,” she says.
Where it will all end up, Dorah isn’t sure. She’d like for there to be a Ph.D. behind her name. She’d like for the name above every name, Jesus, to rule the young Ugandan hearts currently governed by fear. She’d like her liver and kidneys and immune system to hold up under the stress of a lifetime of medications that fight a virus she didn’t deserve.
This she does know for sure.
“Where help is needed, that’s where I’ll be.”
To find out more about A.L.I., click here.
Local Phoenix friends, if you are interested in hearing Dorah speak firsthand from her experience, please let me know using the contact form on my website. (Even if you have my cell … it’ll help me keep everything organized!)
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