In Nigeria, A Chance Meeting, A Saved Life
November 15, 2007, BENIN CITY, Nigeria —By Lane Hartill
BENIN CITY, Nigeria — Sara had a plan.
After picking up her HIV medication at the hospital, she would go to her two-room house, pull the small package out of her purse, tear it open, then swallow the rat poison. That would be it. She wouldn't have to endure the whispers or the rejection. She wouldn't have to hear her husband yell at her, calling her a skeleton.
About four months ago, her husband started coming home late. When she questioned him, the shouting started.
"I'm ashamed, I'm ashamed. You are like a skeleton," he thundered. "How can I stay in this house, you are like a skeleton. Who will I call my wife? Everyone is talking about you in the street. You look so skinny!"
Sara cried herself to sleep, remembering when her life was different.
Sara — not her real name — grew up in Warri, in Nigeria's oil-soaked Niger Delta. Her mother was a fruit seller, her father, a Nigerian Marine. She was the baby in a family of five older sisters and a brother, and they showered her with attention. They visited her at boarding school and brought her food every week.
She came to Benin City in 1988 to join her father, who was originally from here. One evening, she wandered into a restaurant and ordered potato chips and a bottle of orange Fanta. A man sat down and started talking to her. She didn't know he owned the place. Or that he was interested in her. Two days later, he came to her house. Two years later, they were married.
When she became pregnant in 1991, she was thrilled. "When I discovered I was pregnant, I was so happy because I really loved children. And I wanted to have lots of them. After [I delivered] they told me it was a baby girl. I love baby girls because of their fancy clothes and everything."
Four year later, she had a second girl. The three of them were inseparable. They grinned at the animals at the Ogba Zoo here. They put on their best dresses and sipped Cokes at the swish Palmeria Hotel.
Life was good and so was Sara's business. She frequently traveled to Cotonou, the capital of neighboring Benin, where she bought gently used clothes — baled and shipped from the United States and England — and sold them here. She was a working mom and life couldn't have been better.
So when the headaches started in 2002, she brushed them off. But then came the fever. And the weight loss. She went to see her sisters in Lagos. Maybe they could help. They were married to wealthy men. She hoped she could see the doctor at her brother-in-law's international company.
The Sting of Rejection
The reception caught her off guard. "Why did I come to Lagos? Why did I not call her?" Sara says her sisters shouted at her. Already a willowy woman, Sara had lost weight. Her svelte frame had been reduced to rail thin.
This triggered it. Maybe it was the memory of her irate sisters. Or the thought of her rail-thin body. Sara's eyes pooled with tears as she remembered the scene. But she didn't sob or lose control. She suppressed her cracking voice, wiped the tears from her cheeks with the sleeve of her yellow blazer, pulled herself together, and kept telling her story.
Her sisters were relentless with their accusations, their disgust.
"In the whole of Benin, don't they have a hospital?" they asked. "How can you come to Lagos with the way you are looking? My friends will soon be around."
Sara slowed again. "That stigma … I started crying," she says, flatly. "I said, 'You are my blood. How can you do this to me?' "
They hid her in a room, and said they would talk about it later. When they returned, they gave her about $150 and told her to return to Benin and take an HIV test. She did. Her husband, at that time, was brimming with support.
"I told my husband I wanted him to follow me to the hospital," she says. "When we were on our way, my husband was saying I should not fear anything. Even if the result comes out positive, people still survive with AIDS. They live a normal life."
But when her sisters found out that she had contracted HIV (Sara believes it was through a blood transfusion after a car accident in 2001), the storm of insults started again.
"They were shouting: 'How did you contract such a deadly disease? You've put a stain on the family name.' They said I was careless [that] I went close to the person with AIDS. I wasn't cautious."
Family bonds run deep in Africa. So when your family turns on you, there are few other places to go. This stigma of HIV in Nigeria freezes people with fear. Some HIV-positive Nigerians tell stories of villages scattering upon the arrival of an HIV-positive member. Husbands have been known to dump wives and leave home.
Sara felt this sting of rejection and it so pervaded her life, she wanted to end it. She had shrunk to 35 pounds. Her daughters had to carry her to the toilet. But it was the rejection, she says, that made her consider suicide.
During this time, she turned to her mom. But the stigma weighed so heavily that she couldn't bear to tell her mom she'd contracted HIV. Her mom took her to seven different "native doctors," — one required a trek through the bush to reach — who prescribed concoctions of herbs mixed with gin. Her mother spent more than $1,500. Unbeknownst to her, Sara didn't drink a drop.
It had all become too much. That's why she bought the rat poison.
But thanks to James, she never ate it. James, which is not his real name, is part of a support group that is facilitated by the health team at the Catholic Archdiocese of Benin City. CRS supports the Archdiocese which formed and supports this group — and the outreach team — to work with HIV-positive Nigerians.
The prevalence rate among adults in Nigeria is 3.9 percent, or about 2.9 million people. Of those, more than 92,700 people are on antiretroviral therapy. Through CRS' Seven Dioceses Community-Based Care and Support project, HIV-positive Nigerians receive home-based care from trained volunteers. They do everything from help bathe babies and deliver school supplies to counsel patients on the finer points of HIV and the importance of antiretroviral therapy.
'I'm Not Going to Die Anymore!'
Sara remembers exactly how James and his antiretroviral therapy message came into her life.
"He walked by," she says, remembering she was sitting in the hallway of the clinic. "Then he turned and looked at me. Maybe it was the tears that were in my eyes that attracted him."
He asked to see her for a moment.
She just wanted to be left alone, she said. She just wanted to end her life. He was a scam artist, and she knew it. She thought he, too, was out to make her feel bad.
"I was shouting on him. 'What do you want to see me for? I've never seen you before.' "
In his calm voice, James told her he knew her problem.
"I'm a victim too," he whispered.
She didn't believe him. James was healthy, even stocky. "I thought everybody that had the problem must be skinny like I was."
James told her he once looked like her. He'd been so sick he couldn't walk, reduced to crawling around his house. This got her attention.
He told her she could live a long time if she took her antiretroviral drugs and ate the right food. He assured her she'd be just fine.
To drive home his point, he pulled his HIV test out of his pocket. "I became calm," says Sara. "I was now interested in what he was saying." He asked for her address. He told her he would come see her. Stunned, Sara couldn't believe someone was comforting her and not rejecting her.
When she got home, James was standing in front of her house.
"I thought: Which type of human being is this?" she says. "When I opened the gate I said maybe God sent this man to restore hope to my life. Let me just give him a chance and see."
Sara opened her heart to him. She told James she'd hit bottom. She needed someone to turn to. James suggested the HIV support group at the Archdiocese of Benin City.
"On the first day that I came and I saw women as fat as this," she says, holding her hands wide, signaling they were broad across the beam. "I saw a lot of people, they were so beautiful. Wow! So these people have this problem? Me too, I will live. Oh! I'm not going to die anymore!
She hit a rough patch after she started taking the antiretroviral therapy. But soon, Sara's life was transformed. She's even working now, baking donuts and egg rolls and selling them at a school. The rice, beans and vitamins that CRS helps to provide has meant she saves almost $120 a month. She's now looking for money to buy a deep freeze. She wants to sell ice blocks and ice cream in the market. They're popular items, and she knows she can make good money.
"If CRS had not been there, a lot of people would have been long gone," she says. "They paid our children's school fees. The first day they paid my children's school fees I was so surprised. They brought books. I said, 'Wow!' "
Her husband has changed too. He calls her every day now. He's ready to come back home.
Lane Hartill is the West Africa regional information officer for Catholic Relief Services. He has visited CRS programs in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Lane is based in Dakar, Senegal.