ABUJA, Nigeria — Dusk is time for relaxation in Nigeria. The heat of the day ebbs away and, as the sunset bathes dusty streets and shacks in an orange glow, people walk along the streets, greet one another and stop to chat, or sit on benches to watch others pass by.
Emmanuel and Kate Musa often take early evening strolls around their neighborhood on the outskirts of Abuja. They come home to have dinner together with their brood of four children.
At around seven o’clock their youngest daughter, who is 9 years old, says “Daddy it’s time,” and, as usual, she hands him his medicine box. Emmanuel swallows the anti-retroviral pills with a gulp of water. So does his wife.
Emmanuel is HIV positive and his wife became infected. Rather than allowing the disease to tear apart their marriage through angry recriminations and accusations, the Musas have stayed together. The love between the two is palpable and it has sustained their marriage and family.
Nigeria has the world’s second-largest population infected with HIV with an estimated 2.6 million people with the virus. But the battle to stop the spread of the disease is finding success: in 2001 the prevalence rate was 5.8 percent; today it has fallen to 3.6 percent.
Emmanuel, 49, discovered he was HIV positive in 1996. He was lying sick in a hospital bed when he overheard one of the nurses say, “That man has AIDS, he is going to die.”
“Initially I felt that my life was over,” says Emmanuel, recalling that moment 13 years ago. But Kate encouraged him to accept counseling and he learned how to live with HIV and to take the pills that keep him alive.
Three years later while pregnant with their youngest daughter and undergoing a pre-natal check-up, Kate found out that she, too, was HIV positive. She went through the same counseling and treatment that Emmanuel had experienced.
Sitting together on a wooden bench in the yard of their little house, the smiling couple are a picture of togetherness and mutual support.
It was not always this way. Emmanuel used to be a soldier, posted all over the country. He was also a wayward husband.
“I know I was a bit promiscuous,” he says. “I was around Port Harcourt [in the far south] but I cannot say exactly how I contracted it. The thing is most of us leave home and families, and are gone for months or years.”
While away temptation is strong and soldiers have money in a poor country. They — along with prostitutes, truck drivers and youngsters who have just left school — are the most vulnerable to infection.
Experts say the key to preventing the spread of HIV is changing people’s behavior, which is where Emmanuel comes in. He has become a ‘peer educator’ who talks with other men like himself, ex-soldiers and guys his age. He shows them how to avoid contracting HIV. His message is to abstain from extra-marital sex, or if you can’t do that then use condoms and be faithful to one sexual partner. If the men are already infected he counsels them on how to live positively with the virus.
Emmanuel has found that being HIV positive has had a surprising effect on him.
“Being positive made me have a rethink. I decided I had to change my lifestyle. I had to correct my marriage. It has made me more of a family man,” he says. He enjoys spending time with their children, and he is pleased they all healthy and HIV negative.
It is likely that Kate was infected by her wayward husband but she does not blame him.
“We are closer than before,” she says.
Sitting next to her, Emmanuel says happily, “I never knew what I was missing not being close to my wife.