“World AIDS Day showed Bisi Alimi that fear of HIV is still a great threat, just as it was when he first encountered the virus 12 years ago in Lagos, Nigeria“
I was diagnosed as HIV positive eight years ago, and possibly infected two or three years earlier. Though I had no idea of my infection, my passion for HIV work was never based on the fact that I might have been infected.
When I started HIV care, support and prevention work in the 90s, I had not slightest idea I was ever going to get infected. However, I was in fear.
A few months before I started working for Nigeria’s foremost HIV charity that provides services for MSM, I had gone to see my friend in the hospital.
Ibrahim was a very lively young guy. He was younger than me but two years ahead of me at university. We were like two brothers. We had our lives ahead of us. We partied together, went clubbing together and always got into trouble together.
It was Ibrahim who was caught having in the act of having sex in 2000 – exposing me to my first disciplinary action at university. He was the guy that would rather fix my coursework instead of doing his.
So when in early 2001 we started a new academic year and Ibrahim did not return, I was worried. He had been admitted to hospital and within five weeks had become a ghost. I could hardly recognize him.
Two months later, he was like a skeleton. He had lost so much weight and he was so pale. He was on life support. I was so confused; I had no idea what was wrong with him. I wanted to reach out to him and help him.
That year, Ibrahim was not the only one. The night I went to see him in the hospital, I was just coming from another friend’s funeral. That was the fourth that week.
There was a cloud of fear and despair over the gay community in Nigeria. We became a moving corpse. However, some of us had an idea what was killing us.
We knew what it was but we were too scared to call it by its name. We were also confused and with limited knowledge and understanding, we couldn’t take action.
A few days after my visit to the hospital, I got a call from Ibrahim’s brother. Ibrahim had died and I could not help him.
With this anger and frustration, I took to the internet; I was determined to find an answer. Despite the fact that I knew, I was scared to accept reality.
Like many people around the world, the fear of accepting the reality of HIV was the reason we could not take leadership in fighting the virus.
Between the time Ibrahim died and the time I left Nigeria for the UK in 2007, I lost over 30 friends. The oldest friend that died from AIDS was just 28.
So when I was diagnosed in 2004, I saw it as a death sentence. I gave up living, and started dying. I was not sure when death would come, but if there was one thing I was very sure of, it was that I had to make sure the gay community in Nigeria had enough knowledge to prevent the spread of the virus.
I won’t say I have succeeded. But I can say that, with the support of many people, we started a more proactive HIV service in Lagos in 2005.
However, on World AIDS Day on Saturday (1 December) I was jolted out of my fantasy when after tweeting my HIV journey, I started getting messages from many people around the world explaining their fears about being positive.
Within 24 hours of my tweeting, I had received over 20 different messages from people, male and female. They told me of their fear of disclosing their status to the people they love. They told me about their loneliness and anger.
It worries me that eight years after my diagnosis, over 12 years after Ibrahim’s death and with hundreds of millions of investment in HIV prevention the world over, we are still in the 1980s when it comes to the understanding of HIV and AIDS.
There was one common theme from everyone I spoke with over the weekend. There was no one to talk to. No one would understand.
One particularly painful story was from a friend who, because of the fear of disclosing his status, has decided never to fall in love. He is so scared of rejection. And to think that this friend of mine lives in London is even more alarming.
After three decades of relentless efforts to normalize HIV we are still facing stigma and discrimination.
There has been billions of investment in HIV treatment and prevention but we are still riddled with shame and anger. Even though research has shown that living with HIV is no longer a death sentence, we still live in ignorance. It makes me wonder what the future holds.
Like me eight years ago, there are millions of people out there living with HIV thinking they are alone. I want you to know that you are just part of the over 34 million people living with HIV the world over.
That is more than the population of many countries in the world, so you are not alone. You will only be alone if you keep quiet.
To HIV activists and advocates, international and local HIV charities, if indeed we want to fulfill the theme for this year World AIDS Day, which is ‘Zero Infection, Discrimination and Stigma’, we need to learn to re-evaluate our work.
To everyone living with HIV in silence, I just want you to know that there is someone somewhere who will listen and understand. There is someone out there who will love you irrespective of your HIV status. And with better treatment options and support networks, there is no need to be alone.
I know this because it was only when I reached out that I saw I did not have to suffer on my own.
The biggest killer of people living with HIV is not the virus but silence due to hate, stigma and rejection.
This article was first published in GayStarNews on 04 December 2012