Overcoming a Traumatic Childhood

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Veronica Ibanda is a psychologist who studied at Makerere University and now works for a non-governmental organization. (Photo: Megan Lindow)

Veronica Ibanda, a psychologist who grew up in an HIV-stricken family, was drawn to mental healthcare after a chance encounter with a therapist. 

This article is part of a series exploring the transformation of African women's lives through education.

Veronica Ibanda grew up in the urban slums outside of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. When she was 10 years old, she lost her father to HIV/AIDS, and her mother – uneducated and also HIV-positive – faced the burden of looking after a large family alone.

As Veronica recalls, her childhood was marked by fear, anxiety, and deprivation. “Dad was a little educated but Mum was not, so it left a big gap in the family. We backslid in finances, in everything,” she says. "We always lived in fear, because with HIV in Uganda the trend was, you get sick today and at any moment, you die.”

“Psychologically we were tortured,” she continues. “I would worry about Mum whenever I went to school. I would worry that I would come home and find her dead.”

Veronica and her siblings found their own ways of coping with the stress. Her older brother turned silent. Veronica developed ulcers at the age of eleven. Her first interaction with a therapist stemmed from a visit to a local hospital with her mother, who was receiving treatment for HIV. One of the counselors recognized that Veronica was suffering from stress and brought her in for a talk. “That’s when I realized there are people who can talk others into healing,” she says.

Ever since, she has worked hard toward excelling in her chosen field: psychology. In high school, her church paid for her to attend boarding school. When she graduated, she enrolled at Makerere University, unsure of how she would fund her tuition but determined to earn a degree. “I knew the only way I would ever change my life was if I completed my education,” she says.

A scholarship from Carnegie Corporation enabled her to pursue her studies – and fueled her drive to succeed. She received constant reinforcement from scholarship administrators. “This is what they told us: You are coming in as poor children, but this is not what you are going to be. Your life will change. Everything can change. We have given you the key, and you can use it to open the doors,” Veronica recalls.

“When you have this vision that ‘I can be better,’ and when you have people who keep saying it to you over and over again, it sticks in your mind,” she says. “I realized I can make it no matter where I am.”

Veronica graduated from university and was hired as an HIV Coordinator for the non-governmental organization Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA). She was grateful for the opportunity to help other families affected by HIV. “I did the work with ease, because I knew what all these people were facing and how their families were struggling” she says.

Over the past several years, she has worked her way up through the organization, from HIV Coordinator to Project Manager to Area Coordinator. She is now responsible for running large programs across two districts in Uganda. She also upgraded her studies with a master's degree in Clinical Psychology, in addition to getting married, having two children, and putting three of her younger siblings through university. Moreover, she acts as a mentor to current scholarship recipients at Makerere.

She remains full of aspiration. “I can go for a doctorate, I can lecture, I can have a psychology clinic,” she says. “I can help the adolescents with their drug and alcohol problems. I can help the HIV-positive and the terminally ill.” For Veronica — a young woman who endured a difficult and painful childhood – there are no limits to what she can achieve today.

Megan Lindow is an award-winning writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She is a former Africa Correspondent for the Chronicle of Higher Education and the author of Weaving Success: Voices of Change in African Higher Education, the story of a major 10-year initiative investing in African universities.