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Lifting the veil of silence about AIDS: One Nigerian's journey
June 25, 2008
The streets of Jos North, Nigeria, look the same today as they did five years ago. Dusty avenues pulse with chatter, bartering, the blare of a radio and the muezzins' calls to prayer. Uniformed children trek to school. Men visit and trade in the shadow of electronics or provisions shops. Youths sell inexpensive Chinese goods. Veiled women slip out to purchase tomatoes, okra or dried fish for the day's stew.
While it might appear that little has changed in Jos North since 2003, some residents have made great strides in confronting one of the community's most pressing problems: the scourge of HIV and AIDS. A local Muslim woman and her small organization are leading the way, and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is supporting their efforts.
When Amina Ahmed, now 32, learned about Africa's AIDS crisis from a Zambian friend, she immediately saw that it had local implications.
"I realized in my community this was big because anything to do with sexuality is hard to talk about," Amina quietly stated.
Speaking of sexuality is considered private, indecent, even taboo in this West African nation. Both the national government and religious organizations were reluctant to face the reality of AIDS when it emerged.
The danger is widespread here: 80 percent of HIV infections are transmitted heterosexually. A burgeoning youth population — now exposed to Western values as portrayed by the media — stands at particular risk. Poverty and the religious authorities' condemnation of condoms contribute to the problem of unprotected sex. In addition, a different sexual standard for men, along with polygamy, put women and their unborn children at a distinct disadvantage.
Amina was initially reluctant to speak out about the controversial subject of AIDS in her neighborhood. But she was already working on another difficult, important issue — promoting peace between Muslims and Christians in Jos, a city of about 1.5 million people, which includes Jos North.
Her commitment was intensely personal. In 2001, a religious conflict triggered hostilities that shocked Jos, before known for "peace and tourism." Men hacked, burned and shot, targeting those of the other faith. The violence destroyed personal property, mosques and churches. It claimed Amina's uncle and brother, and the family's provisions store. Bitter and traumatized, she despised Christians, whom she and many local Muslims blamed for the attacks. She vowed to have nothing to do with them.
Healing began when she attended an inter-religious workshop on conflict resolution that MCC sponsored. In the process, Amina became friends with one of its presenters, a Christian pastor.
"I began to see that we were all in the same shoes," Amina said.
She gathered her circle of women friends; they understood her vision and became the first members of a community organization, Women Initiative for Sustainable Community Development (WISCOD.) Handing out pamphlets at weddings and traditional baby naming ceremonies, they began to teach peaceful ways to approach dissension and to challenge myths about different ethnic and religious groups.
But Amina quickly realized AIDS was going to be as devastating as inter-religious clashes. She was right; Nigeria, where 60 percent of the population is Muslim, is second only to South Africa in numbers of people living with AIDS. Its 140 million citizens have a 5 to 6 percent infection rate.
Determined to learn more, Amina attended an AIDS workshop. With information in hand, she persuaded WISCOD members to join her in taking AIDS awareness to the streets of Jos North.
Soliciting support from Islamic leaders, or imams, was her first task.
"It was a challenge, being women, how do we get to these big imams?" Amina commented. Her father — a progressive Muslim who supported her peace efforts and also her spirited drive against AIDS — agreed to talk with authorities on her behalf.
Then a Muslim relief agency agreed to cosponsor an AIDS forum for local Islamic leaders. While some accused her of bringing "these foolish ideas from America," a critical mass listened and lent their verbal support.
WISCOD first coached youth to educate friends and peers in their schools, mosques and neighborhoods. Culturally and religiously appropriate information was distributed, as few participants had accurate facts about AIDS. Open and interactive discussions broke a long-held silence about sexuality.
MCC began providing financial support for WISCOD's work in 2005 and currently supports two projects related to peace and AIDS.
WISCOD also collaborated with Ittihadu Anwaril Hidayat, the organization of Islamic school teachers, in an effort to reach children. A pilot program recently finished; future plans include training all 621 educators to teach more than 21,000 students about AIDS.
Amina's group then targeted traditional birth attendants (TBAs) who typically receive little formal training as midwives. Now, due to their knowledge and new skills, TBAs deliver babies using sterile materials and sanitary practices. They know how HIV transmits from mother to child, how it can be prevented, and they refuse prenatal care until a woman screens for HIV.
Ladi Mohammed has been delivering babies for 18 years; she inherited this revered vocation from her grandmother and mother.
"I learned many things (at the workshops)" Ladi said. "We learned sanitary procedures like sterilizing razors and using gloves. We teach each woman about the risk of AIDS. We insist they both get a test and share the results with us. Knowing their result allows us to follow up with them."
Ladi claims that mortality rates are already significantly lower as TBAs put into practice what they learned at WISCOD's training. Ongoing monthly gatherings provide support, encouragement and continued skill building.
In late 2006, the Shifa Clinic opened to offer free and confidential testing. Staffed by Muslims, it especially welcomes women reluctant to leave or confined to their neighborhood. The national imam traveled three and a half hours from Abuja, Nigeria's capital, to bless the modest concrete-block and tin-roofed rooms.
"That gave us (more) support," Amina stated. "If the leaders accept (a cause) the people will follow."
Participants at seminars, such as Hadizah Ahmed, often join WISCOD's efforts.
"Before I went to one of the workshops, I used to run away from a woman who had AIDS," Hadizah stated. Now she counsels those who come to Shifa Clinic for testing, and follows up with those who test positive.
"Women are the hardest, they are not educated, and they don't understand how HIV can happen to them. It's hard for them to accept it; if they are positive, their whole life changes," Hadizah commented, waving a hand in reference to three pregnant women who had just arrived at the clinic.
Hadizah, 25, believes that more women and youth must be trained, that the media should promote AIDS awareness, and that Jos North should have its own AIDS treatment center.
Amadu Mohammed agreed. Now healthy on anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) and fully open about his status, he warns neighbors about AIDS and brings them to Shifa Clinic for testing. Those who test positive are usually taken to nearby Faith Alive Clinic for care and ARVs. But some Muslims refuse the treatment offered at the Christian medical center.
"We need our own clinic," Amadu stated. "It's very important for the (Muslim) people so they will get the treatment they need." Funds and local support, however, remain at large.
Despite all her AIDS activism, Amina has not strayed from promoting peace. In May and June of 2008, Amina was one of 20 international peacemakers that MCC sponsored to attend the Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) in Harrisonburg, Va. SPI is a program of Eastern Mennonite University that provides professional training for nonviolent peacemakers from around the world.
For Amina, SPI offered a chance to learn more about healing the emotional wounds of violent conflicts — in others, and in herself. She reflected personally on the violence in Jos as a professor led a course on "trauma awareness and transformation."
"Being a victim of conflict back home, I felt the awareness should start from myself," Amina said. "During one of the sessions, I found myself weeping and felt there is a need for every person to have what the professor called 'space' — to be able to bring out the issue, the tension, in you."
However, Amina still faces major obstacles to her work in Jos. Inter-religious tensions still exist and many leaders are reluctant to tackle the challenge of AIDS.
AIDS remains the leading cause of death in Nigeria and WISCOD's work has only begun.
However, on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, 2007, hundreds of Muslims marched the Jos North streets, distributing leaflets, countering stigma and begging people to take the threat of AIDS seriously. These streets are still dusty, vibrant and noisy, but they are no longer silent about AIDS.