….draws Barrow’s attention to the plight of PLHIV
By Talibeh Hydara
Lamin Ceesay, the first Gambian to go public with his HIV status 17 years ago, has said that former president Jammeh’s infamous treatment of the virus didn’t work on most patients, saying many have actually died during the treatment.
Former tyrant Yahya Jammeh stunned the world in 2007 when he claimed he could cure HIV and AIDS with his cocktail of herbal concoction.
But according to Ceesay, who was the first to drink and apply Jammeh’s herbs at the beginning of the treatment, the herbs left him with a running stomach for months.
“I cannot even count the number of people that died during the treatment. Most of those who were there until the programme ended died shortly after. The treatment wasn’t good. The only thing that made it better was the food because we ate roasted meat every time, vegetables, fruits were all in abundance. Naturally, you would put on weight but that doesn’t mean the treatment was working. Majority of them died. Those herbs were all zero. If I had remained there myself, I would have died a long time ago.
“Jammeh asked for ten people from Santa Yalla to join his treatment. I was among the ten who went there. He gave us strict warning that smoking, drinking attaya, kola nut, sexual intercourse, etc., were all forbidden as soon as the treatment starts. I was the first patient he started the treatment on. But his medicine caused me serious diarrhoea. In fact, before I left MRC to join his treatment, my viral load was almost undetectable. It was during his treatment my condition worsened because I ended up having Tuberculosis too as we were all grouped together and some already had TB. For seven months I was very sick until I decided to quit the treatment and return to MRC, where I am until now.
“I was in the treatment programme with my first wife who eventually died. But the saddest thing was, the president never even sent a delegation to pay their condolences to me,” he said.
Lamin contracted the deadly virus in 1998 while he was in Cameroon as a young man hustling in foreign land. When he discovered his status, he was helped by fellow Gambian hustlers to return home.
He initially kept it from his family while attending secret meetings along with others who have the virus. But something changed his mind.
“When I watched videos of how HIV devastated countries like Uganda, I couldn’t keep quiet. Also, I heard from the scholars that God said if you see a plague coming towards your people, warn them so they could get prepared.
“I called the whole family for a meeting to tell them that I have HIV and that I planned to disclose it to the public on World AIDS Day. All of them looked down. I explained to them that I want to go public with it because even the club I was, at least two new members would join us every meeting which means the virus was spreading fast. The other thing I told them was that I saw rich strangers coming to the Gambia with the virus but would sleep with young girls who would also spread the virus without knowing. Not only that, there were young Gambians who had the virus but feared to disclose it because they thought no woman would agree to marry them. So, they kept quiet but still slept with girls. They in fact get married without telling their wives that they have HIV. The virus was just spreading from one person to another. That is how I convinced my family that going public with it would only save lives and create awareness because majority of Gambians didn’t even believe HIV exists.”
Stigma and discrimination
The Gambia has a very scary level of discrimination and this has made many people to quietly live with the virus and, along the way, continue to spread it.
It took Lamin two years to disclose his status and, according to him, stigma played a part in the delay.
He said: “I wasn’t initially stigmatized or discriminated. Many people I met after I came public with my status actually encouraged me and prayed for me, including my stepfather.
“However, the discrimination started when I wanted to rent a house. When I returned in 1998 and disclosed my status two years later, I couldn’t get a rent anywhere. People just denied me rent. I stayed in my mum’s parlour for ten years even after I got married in 2006. My mum would be in the room and I would be with my wife in the parlour. I’ve gone to landlords and landladies many times but, because of the awareness level, they thought giving me a room in their compound was automatically infecting others. My wife later died anyway during the president’s treatment.”
“Even when I finally got a house, my wife was constantly discriminated. The landlady eventually gave us an eviction notice,” he said.
Lamin said discrimination has now spilled over to the campaign itself, accusing the PRs of playing politics and marginalising those they should be fighting for.
“Instead of fighting HIV, these partners are fighting those living with HIV and giving support to HIV.”
Plight of PLHIV
Lamin is the president of Santa Yalla, an institution that has been in the forefront of the fight against HIV and AIDS.
However, according to him, those who are living with the virus are not adequately benefiting from the millions that flow in from Global Funds.
He said his organisation has been dropped from being an implementing partner; a move he said made him lose key members of his staff to other organisations that give salaries.
“The principal recipients (PR) don’t want us to be capacitised because they don’t want us to work for ourselves. I am not happy with what National Aids Secretariat and ActionAid International The Gambia are doing. My little difference with them on issues I am not happy about was the reason they relegated my organisation to be just as any other support group when we have been doing the bulk of the work in the campaign against HIV.
“Now, because my organisation has been stripped of Sub-Recipient (SR) privilege, we are collapsing. When we were in that position, we used to have our own salaries and other benefits. The only thing we now receive is transport allowance which has made all my big staff to abandon the organisation for other SRs. I am losing weight not because of HIV but because I am suffering. I have ten people to feed and clothe. If I die right now, it is not HIV that kills me; it is the depression,” he lamented.
When Adama Barrow won December presidential election, even the vulnerable groups have renewed hopes of enjoying equal treatment in the new dispensation. Directing a plea to the president, Lamin said he and many other Gambians who risked everything to reveal their HIV status deserve maximum protection.
“The last survey indicated that the level of awareness, especially in the youths is declining. This is because the government doesn’t take HIV as a developmental programme.
“I checked the constitution and saw clauses and provisions that guarantee the protection of other vulnerable groups but nothing like people living with HIV. I think when the constitution is reviewed, we should be considered.
“If this is done, then it will become mandatory for government to protect people living with HIV against stigma and discrimination,” he posited.
Ceesay called on President Barrow to intervene as things are not on the right track. He said he is planning to host a forum on the matter during which many other things would be revealed about the condition of people living with HIV in this country.