Read Our Kind of People: A Continent's Challenge, a Country's Hope Online

Authors: Uzodinma Iweala

Tags: #Social Science, #Travel, #Africa, #West, #Disease & Health Issues

Our Kind of People: A Continent's Challenge, a Country's Hope (4 page)

BOOK: Our Kind of People: A Continent's Challenge, a Country's Hope
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“My face is the face of HIV,” Rolake said to me as we struggled to get comfortable in metal folding chairs we had removed from a circle set up for the support-group meeting that was to follow. In many ways, she
is
a prominent internationally known face of HIV. She sits on a board at the powerful Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. She is a regular speaker at conferences around the world.

Her words brought to mind a poster produced by the Keep a Child Alive Campaign. The poster features a dozen American celebrities in face paint designed to simulate “African tribal markings,” all set above the legends
I AM AFRICAN
in bright yellow and
HELP US STOP THE DYING
in danger red. It is one of the more offensive HIV ad campaigns I have encountered, something akin to a nouveau blackface that in one fell swoop manages to incorporate a whole host of stereotypes and negative ideas about the continent—the exoticization of the other and this idea of a primitive beauty, as well as the subtle, unintentional suggestion that to be African is to be HIV positive and thus close to the brink of death.

Rolake has consistently positioned herself against such messaging. “We”—Rolake opened her arms as she spoke to indicate the international activist community—“have sold ourselves short. We have created the impression that Africa is poor, hungry, beggarly children. And this glamorizing poverty to whip up sentiment and fund-raise? It’s emotional blackmail. HIV is not a disease of the poor. It’s a disease of the working class.” I understood her words not as a denial of the link between HIV/AIDS and poverty but rather a statement that people with HIV/AIDS are not totally helpless creatures so far removed from life.

“My face won’t bring money. But it should,” she continued. “My face should tell you that if we have access to treatment, we will remain productive. That’s what I want to do in my work, present a portrait of strength.” It was hard not to be excited by her feistiness and aggressive pushback against the status quo, by her desire to reduce the representational distance between people who have HIV and people who do not.

“I don’t want to go out and look like HIV,” she told the
Vanguard
interviewer. “When we were hearing about AIDS 10 years ago, the picture was all gloom and doom. We were hearing of people dying in the UK and America. We don’t hear that anymore. Is it that they’ve eradicated HIV/AIDS from that part of the world? No, they have access to treatment and HIV has stopped being a death sentence. It has become like high blood pressure, which has no cure but can be managed with medication. So for me, the most important issue is for HIV/AIDS to stop being a death sentence. We can live with HIV.”

Rolake’s work has gone a long way toward normalizing HIV/AIDS, for both those with positive status and the rest of the population, by presenting a reality that is not all sensation, gloom, hardship, and death. A recent university graduate I interviewed in Lagos told me that hearing her speak had transformed the way she thought about HIV/AIDS because people like to think that “people that die of AIDS or have HIV are dirty people, people that sleep around or do rubbish and stuff, not our kind of people,” while Rolake just looked so normal. If her aim is to desensationalize the disease and therefore make it livable, tangible, and real for Nigerians and the world, then perhaps her relentless campaigning is generating results.

She stood up. My notebook hung open over one knee, pen secured safely in its binding. I had arrived too late for an extended discussion. She had her support group to attend to. Before she excused herself, she said, “If you want to know what things are really like, you should talk to women like these,” and opened her palms toward the women assembling in their seats.

The reality of HIV/AIDS in Nigeria and Africa is a diversity of experiences. There is no archetypal story, no single defining theme. For all people who experience the disease, whether HIV positive or not, the reality is influenced by who they are as individuals and the communities to which they belong. The HIV/AIDS epidemic does not exist outside of regular life. Rather, it is shaped by regular life, just as it shapes our everyday experiences.

A few months after I met Rolake, I visited a woman named Hope who lived in the capital of Imo State, a city called Owerri. Owerri is an eight-hour road trip east of Lagos and sits in the middle of an area of the country populated predominantly by members of my Igbo ethnic group. My father grew up in a village only an hour away. When I was younger and we used to do the grueling drive from Lagos to my grandparents’ village, Owerri was one of the last stops along the way. It never seemed to come fast enough. Whereas Lagos is all over-the-top grind and hustle, with the larger-than-life atmosphere of a developing world megalopolis, Owerri is much quieter, “cooler,” as people from the town like to say. The city is definitely more laid-back. The buildings don’t rise as high. There are fewer car horns blasting at any given moment, and all around there is green, the remnants of what used to be massive primary-growth rain forest.

Hope lived in a compound of several similarly constructed one-story buildings in what appeared to be an unfinished housing estate. These low houses were partitioned into multiple one- or two-room living quarters with outdoor kitchens protected from the elements by low-hanging eaves. It seemed that work on the estate had halted some time ago, because rusting construction machinery, tractors, backhoes, and earthmovers sat disintegrating in pools of dark water. The grass that could grow shot up through bits of debris, a rich and lively green. Dragonflies buzzed around the waving grass stalks and above scattered puddles. Behind it all loomed the city’s dilapidated cathedral.

Places like this are unsettling, but I was troubled more by my reaction to the surroundings than by the environment itself. This kind of place speaks of an unglamorous struggle where daily life is a steady stream of inconveniences—no running water, no electricity, and no money for a diesel generator, with the threat of catastrophe lurking in the background. As a person of relative privilege in Nigeria, I find such environments unsettling. They remind me of the extreme nature of my own privilege and how disconnected I am from the experiences of the many people in Nigeria who live on less than two dollars a day. At times I catch myself slipping into romanticizing the suffering, marveling at what seems an inhuman ability to survive what we call inhumane conditions. I struggled to collect my thoughts.

Hope saw me from her window and opened her door before I had a chance to knock. She had tried her best to make the hot, dark one-room apartment hospitable. Plastic flowers adorned the security bars guarding the window. Pictures in frames—her wedding day, children, and assorted other family—hung on shadowed walls. Still more stood atop a dusty television and sparkled when a little light touched them. She invited me to sit down on a purple couch striped by the light entering through the open window and cracked door. There was no electricity, thus no fan. A large hanging curtain that separated the area where she and her children slept from where we now sat languished in the stillness, shifting occasionally with a breath of air from outside.

“The time my husband was alive, we live in three-bedroom flat,” she said almost as an apology. “We just use one room to pack foodstuffs. If you enter my house, you will just serve yourself—enjoy. You will see rice in bags, fruits, everything. Every week, he’ll be giving me ten thousand naira and saying, ‘Use it that anything you like you can buy.’ My children, every three-three months, I will take them to market and get what they need. Weekend, I will take them to this fast-food joint, Mr. Bigg’s. But now, there’s nothing like that. I have to manage, as he’s not around now.”

I noticed for the first time just how young Hope looked. Her eyes were closed in remembrance. Her face was plain and without makeup. She wore her hair natural and unstyled, secured in a tight bun that stretched the skin of her forehead and emphasized her high cheekbones. She appeared to have weathered the stresses of life after her husband’s death relatively well.

“Even as I’m here, I don’t have anything doing. I’m just managing myself. The only thing I do now is to sell Pure Water around this place, NNPC [Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation] filling station. If I get something like three hundred naira or anything, I will just use it and manage. Then my parents do help me, but you know, even if they are giving you one million naira a day, you’re supposed to have something doing.”

She had settled now into a routine that included scraping together an income from her petty trading, raising two young teenagers, and focusing on her HIV treatments, all while living somewhat in the shadow of her previous life. Her apartment walls seemed to have an inordinate number of pictures from the past, mostly of her wedding. I soon found out why.

Hope sighed, reached for her wedding album beneath the glass coffee table, and carefully opened it before us. When she reached a picture of her and her husband standing on the red earth at the bottom of a staircase leading up to a double set of church doors, both of them dressed in a white that matched their broad bright smiles, she turned to me.

“He went for operation. There is one thing that do him on his head here. Look at it here,” she said, pointing to a bulge atop her husband’s cropped hair that transformed his otherwise round head into an oblong structure. “He wanted to remove it. In Nigeria here, before you do any operation—anything—any hospital that you enter, you must test that HIV test. They told us they would do test.”

“This happened before your wedding?” I scrutinized her husband’s face in the picture. “When did you get married?”

“I wedded in 2001—in a church.”

“But,” I said, looking at the two children, a boy and girl standing with her and her husband. They resembled the children in a photo hanging by a clock on the wall. “Your children …”

She stopped me with an anemic wave. “I did my traditional wedding 1993, and then I wedded in church in 2001 after getting my issue,” she said and pointed to her children in the picture. “Here now, I’m up to twenty-something years before I wedded in church. I was fourteen when I did my traditional wedding.”

Hope had grown up in a relatively strict household. Her father, a trader in the local markets, though loving, was perhaps driven to fear on behalf of his family as a result of his hyperacute sense of danger. Rather than have daughters subjected to the indignities of this world, namely premarital sex and all its risks, he decided that they would be better off married early—in Hope’s case, very early.

“My dad, he do always say this is what he wants,” she said. “He just put it in prayer, ‘God, I don’t want any of my daughter to stay here and become pregnant. My prayer is that if I train my children, let them grow up in a good way, that they may train me at the old age. It’s better that they marry and go to their husband’s place so that they will be more glad than to stay at home.’” This is not a typical sentiment among the Igbos, who tend to marry later in life. I could, however, understand the reasoning, the preference for an honorable marriage over the shame of a dishonorable pregnancy, or worse yet, a killer disease. His actions revealed desire for a solid definition of decency in a world of rapidly changing social and sexual mores.

Hope’s older sister introduced her to the man who would become her husband. He was about fifteen years her senior and already established as a relatively successful tractor-trailer driver who shipped goods around for many of the important local politicians and businessmen.

“I don’t know him before I went to his place,” Hope made clear to me, meaning that she had not had sex with her husband. “I said, ‘OK, you know that I’m still a small girl, quite all right, and you, you’re older than me.’ I asked him, ‘Why did you decided to marry a small girl like this?’ He say, it’s how he decided. All those grown-up girls, he don’t like the person that he will brought in. The person may not respect him. He will want to start from the smallest so that the small girl may respect him and he will teach that girl. It’s just he wanted to brush the person up by hisself.”

“You weren’t afraid?” I asked.

“I was not afraid. How can I be afraid?”

She looked at me directly for the first time. Her eyes were clear and bright, even in the dimness, her face rough with something approaching indignation.

“No. I was not afraid, ‘cause I go in to pray. After introduction, then he pay my bride price—-just twenty thousand naira as of that 1993.” She paused to emphasize the absurdity of inflation. In 1993 twenty thousand naira was almost a thousand dollars. Today the same sum is less than one hundred and fifty dollars.

“He now do my traditional wedding. Ah!” She rocked back and forth for a moment, her mind and body caught up in the music and celebration of so long ago. “They danced now! We called Band Eze. We invite them there. Another person, a singer, from Owerri—I do forget his name—we invite him too. It was very tough! I was happy! He pulled crowd. Even commissioners, they were there. The PDP [People’s Democratic Party] chairman in this state, all of them are there.”

She was smiling now and even clapped her hands when remembering the music they had played that day, almost fifteen years earlier. For a moment, I could see the woman she might have been before, excited, voluble, full of emotion that showed in her wide smile.

Hope’s two children were born in quick succession after her marriage and life settled into a pattern of relative comfort and prosperity as her husband’s business thrived, but it seemed that he was seldom around. Such are the lives of interstate truck drivers. Some years later, in 2001, probably after her husband had saved a good chunk of money, they decided to have what Nigerians call the white wedding. In Nigeria the traditional wedding is considered the most important ceremony. As my mother says, you can get married in as many churches as you want, but unless you have your traditional ceremony, no one will respect your union. If finances are tight, most people will do their traditional wedding first, and later, sometimes years later, when they find the money, they perform the white wedding.

BOOK: Our Kind of People: A Continent's Challenge, a Country's Hope
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