Aids destroys dream of life in the big city

Two years after escaping her African village to find an exciting new life in the big city, Monique lies shrunken, pale and feverish on her hospital death bed, gripped by a killer virus and by denial: “I’m not a prostitute. I can’t have Aids.”

Beside her lies her six-month-old son. Without expensive treatment he won’t long survive her.

The nurses caring for her in Cotonou’s infectious diseases hospital know the truth, but Monique won’t accept that at 21 she has become the latest among 24-million Africans to catch a disease that many in her native Benin do not understand.

“In nine months I’ve lost 15 kilos.
Now I weigh only 32. I’ve had headaches and fever for a year. I had a runny genital infection. Malaria trapped me in my bed. A local medicine man cured the infection, but then I got this cough,” she says.

“Now, I suppose, the malaria must have been replaced my tuberculosis. I think it’s just lack of sleep. I’m so tired, but I’ll be fine when I’ve had a rest,” she added.

A nurse shakes her head. Later, she privately tells the reporter the truth: “Monique has an advanced case of syphilis and, more seriously, cervical cancer, against a background of Aids.”

As hundreds of health experts meet in Abuja for the 14th International Conference on Aids and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa (Icasa), Monique’s story reflects the main challenges facing them as they battle to stop HIV/Aids stealing a generation of African youth.

She grew up in a tiny village deep in Benin’s dusty, under-developed rural interior where peasant farmers scratch a living growing yams, cassava and cotton, 500km and half-a-world away from the cosmopolitan port city of Cotonou.

Monique sold oranges and bananas to passing truck drivers and dreamed of better things.

To her eyes the truckers had an interesting life, travelling from town to town, and they entertained her with tales of the great metropolis on the coast.

When she turned 19, and already a pretty young woman, she decided to make a new start.

One of the drivers agreed to take her on his next run to Cotonou. In exchange, she shared his hotel bed for a night on the journey.

She knew little of the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases. And in any case, those were problems for bad girls, prostitutes who slept with many men interchangeably, weren’t they?

In Cotonou she soon took up with another man. He was married to someone else, but he helped her out financially and was the father of her child. Her boyfriend died in February.

Monique rapidly fell ill herself, but clings to her pride and hopeless confidence. Her carefully woven braids are kept neat and tied back, and she certainly does not consider herself a prostitute. She will nevertheless soon join the 9 100 Beninese who have already died from HIV/Aids.

In Abuja, experts will this week discuss the need for education on the risks of unprotected sex, argue the merits of promoting abstinence, study means of preventing mother-to-child transmission of the virus, and plan how best to spend billions of dollars in new funds.

But for many, it will be too late.

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