Benin City — Sara had a plan. After visiting the hospital, she would return to her two-room house, pull a small package out of her purse, tear it open, then swallow the rat poison it contained.
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 any longer.
About seven months ago, her husband started coming home late. When she asked him why, the shouting started. He was ashamed of her, he thundered. She was so skinny, everyone was talking about her in the street. How could he stay with her? That night, Sara cried herself to sleep, remembering when her life was different.
Sara — not her real name — grew up in Warri, in Nigeria's oil- rich 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 there. 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. They developed a relationship and two years later they were married.
When she became pregnant in 1991, she was thrilled.
" I was so happy because I really loved children," she said. "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 years later, she had a second girl. She and her daughters were inseparable. They grinned at the animals at the Ogba Zoo. They put on their best dresses and sipped Cokes at the swish Palmeria Hotel. Life was good.
So was Sara's business. She was a working mom who traveled regularly to Cotonou, the capital of neighboring Benin, where she bought used clothes — baled and shipped from the United States and England — and brought them back to sell.
The Sting of Rejection
When the headaches started in 2002, Sara brushed them off. But then came the fever and the weight loss. Already a willowy woman, her frame became rail thin.
She went to see her sisters in Lagos. They were married to wealthy men. Maybe they could help, she thought. She hoped she could see the doctor at her brother-in-law's international company. But their reception caught her off guard. She says one of her sisters shouted at her, "Why did you come to Lagos? Why did you not call me?"
Recalling her experience in a recent interview, Sara's eyes pooled with tears. But she didn't sob or lose control. She took control of her cracking voice, wiped her cheeks with the sleeve of her yellow blazer and kept telling the story.
Her sisters were relentless with their accusations, expressing their disgust. "That stigma … I started crying," she remembered. "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 $150 and told her to return to Benin and take an HIV test. She did.
In the first years after she became aware of her status, her husband supported her.
"I told him 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, the 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." (Sara believes she became HIV positive when she received a blood transfusion after a car accident in 2001.)
Sara turned to her mom. But the stigma weighed so heavily that she couldn't bear to tell her that she had contracted HIV. Her mom took her to seven different traditional healers— reaching one required a trek through the bush— who prescribed concoctions of herbs mixed with gin. Her mother spent more than $1,500 but Sara didn't drink a drop of what she bought.
She shrunk to 35 pounds. Her daughters had to carry her to the toilet. Then her husband, too, rejected her.
In Nigeria, when your family turns on you there are few other places to go. The stigma of HIV freezes people with fear. Some HIV-positive Nigerians tell stories of villages scattering upon the arrival of an HIV-positive person.
It was the sting of rejection, Sara says, which so pervaded her life that she wanted to end it. 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.
'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 replied. She thought he was a scam artist, or perhaps 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 a calm voice, James told her he knew her problem. He was 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 was reduced to crawling around his house. This got her attention. He told her she could live a long time if she took antiretroviral drugs and ate the right food.
To drive home his point, James 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 and said he would come see her. Stunned, Sara couldn't believe someone was comforting her and not rejecting her.
When she got home later, 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. 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 apart. "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.
Now, she's even working, baking donuts and egg rolls and selling them at a school. The rice, beans and vitamins the church helps to provide saves her almost $120 a month. She's 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.
Her husband has changed too. He calls her every day now , and he's ready to come back home.
Lane Hartill is the West Africa regional information officer for Catholic Relief Service s, based in Dakar. Through CRS' Seven Dioceses Community-Based Care and Support project, HIV-positive Nigerians receive home-based care from trained volunteers, who 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.