After HIV, Another Chance at Life — and Love
November 27, 2007, —By Lane Hartill
BENIN CITY, Nigeria — It's sharing time at the HIV support group. And Henry has something to get off his chest. He stands up, clears his throat, and then fires away.
After battling the virus for months, he says, he went to his family for help. Their welcome was anything but warm. First they locked him in a room. Then they sent him away to his village. When he arrived, he was sick and on death's door. He stepped out of the vehicle expecting the usual round of handshakes and backslaps. But nobody came to greet him. In a country where greetings are fundamental and affection rampant, Henry — not his real name — was met with the flash of his family's backs disappearing into their houses.
The 50 people in the room are quiet. Some nod. Most of them have gone through the same thing.
One by one, they stand up, greet their fellow Nigerians, and release the stories that have been simmering inside them. For some, the members of this HIV support group are the only people with whom they can share.
A lady in the back, speaking in the English lilt that is common in Nigeria, says she became so ill she had to crawl on the floor in her house, too weak to stand. One man says he became so thin his neck was the size of his index finger. A slight exaggeration perhaps, but his point was clear. Others say they spent days stewing in their own waste, prostrate on the floor. Nobody, they say, would go near them.
A short lady in an orange dress and matching headwrap barely starts her story before breaking down as she explains that her husband's family rejected her. She sits back down, sets her black purse in her lap, and softly sobs.
But it's OK. If the tears flow, it's no problem. This is a place they feel safe. The stigma of HIV is so strong in Benin City that people often won't disclose their status to their families or spouses.
The support group — organized by the Archdiocese of Benin City, which receives support from Catholic Relief Services — has become such a success that there are now six in Benin City, with about 380 people attending regularly. There has also been an unintended effect: it's become a place where HIV-positive Nigerians who have lost their spouses can find new mates.
"Daniel," who was single, met "Gloria," whose husband had died from an HIV-related illness. Her former husband's family rejected her. Both Daniel and Gloria were HIV-positive, as was Gloria's 5-year-old son. They met at a support group.
The word is out. People are coming to Daniel, asking about potential wives and husbands.
"It's working!" he says. Three couples, flush with love after finding acceptance, have married.
Almost everyone agrees: the social pressure to find a spouse weighs heavily on the minds of Benin City's HIV-positive community. In Africa people are often looked down upon if they are not married by their mid-20s. And in Benin City, a pulsing city packed with markets where women squat behind pyramids of tomatoes and hawk yams the size of a man's thighs, it's not always easy to find a spouse.
In a city of 1.1 million you'd think it would be. But the stigma of HIV hangs like a black cloud over those who have it (40,000 to 60,000 people in Benin), knowing it could end a relationship in a heartbeat. That may be one of the reasons why the numbers at the support group are growing.
As the stories come out, people nod. Others stare vacantly at the floor, their own pasts scrolling through their minds.
And then comes "Sara."
She is elegant. She swishes by me dressed in a wine-colored tunic and cream twill pants with matching shoes. She has the posture of a princess, the stride of a model. She has a voice that soothes and a story that will break your heart.
She was the last of six children and grew up in a solidly middle class home. She married and had two girls and a successful business. But after a car accident in 2001 she contracted HIV. She suspects it was from tainted blood during the transfusion. She dropped to 35 pounds. Her husband left her. After her sisters locked her in a room and were embarrassed to be seen with her, she contemplated suicide. The worst part she says: her daughters had to leave school to help care for her.
She tells the group how she broke the news to her teenage daughter.
Her daughter came into her room and sat on the edge of her bed. Sara asked her what she knew about HIV. Her daughter said she'd heard about it at school and on TV.
"She said, 'It's a terrible disease, Mommy. It used to kill somebody. They say now there is hope. If someone is HIV-positive and the person is taking their drugs, the person will no longer die.' "
"I said, 'What if someone very close to you gets this virus? How will you feel?' "
"She said, 'God forbid! In Jesus' name, no one in my family will have HIV!' "
Sara said: "What I want to tell you might shock you. She said, 'Say it Mommy, what is it?' I said, 'I am HIV-positive.' "
"She now held me, she was crying. I said, 'Why are you crying, I thought you said somebody who has it will not die?' "
Her daughter was spot-on. Now that Sara is on antiretroviral therapy and leading a normal life, her daughter — tall like her mom, favoring dangly earrings — makes sure her mom takes her antiretroviral drugs on time. She will even wake her up from a nap to give them to her.
'Talk of the Town'
Henry, the first speaker who was rejected by his village, is now the go-to guy when it comes to questions about HIV. His dramatic recovery has made him the resident expert.
"Today, in my village, I'm the talk of the town," he says. "Anybody who is [sick], my village calls me. They call me Papa AIDS." He listens and advises.
He's on a mission to squash the stigma, especially among teenage Nigerian men. "When I talk about HIV, they don't believe me when I declare my status. They say I'm a liar."
After his speech at the support group, Henry stood, paused — as if deciding whether to proceed — and raised his voice, like a preacher in full throat.
"Stop stigmatizing yourself. Don't hide yourself. Speak out. That's the end of the sickness!"
"Amen," the crowd shouted.
"Those of you that are hiding yourself, come out!"
"Amen," they cheered.
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.