I got to attend a very interesting conference recently here in Niamey. It was organized by a committee that aims to facilitate dialogue between the Muslim and Christian religious leaders here in Niger. They meet and discuss all kinds of issues, but the purpose of this meeting, was to explore how the religious leaders of both communities can help end the discrimination and stigmatization faced by HIV/AIDS patients. Hassane and I went to represent CURE, and there were many other organizations represented as well. Officially (at least according to the official-looking banner that festooned the stage) the initiative was launched by:
The Alliance of Muslim and Christian Religious Leaders in the Fight against HIV/AIDS – Under the Supervision and with the Support of the Ministry of the Interior, Public Security, Decentralization and Religious Affairs of the Republic of Niger.
That is a title that has the word fonctionnaire written all over it. The kind of title you could only find in a former French colony. Or in France I guess. A real mouthful. But in a culture that values la gastronomie, I guess a mouthful is a good thing.
Anyway, I really didn’t know much about this issue at all, so I was very interested to hear what the speakers had to say. After all the formal introductions (at least 15 minutes), they had three talks, one from a Muslim Sheik, one from a Christian Pastor, and one from a representative from the Ministry of the Interior. I was impressed by all of them. They spoke about the way AIDS victims are treated in Nigerien society, and the social stigmas affixed to them. They are often made fun of and viewed as sinful people who did something bad (fornication, homosexual relations) to contract, and thus deserve their sickness. It was really great seeing leaders from both religions denounce this behavior and attitude, challenge the taboos, and educate the audience. It was especially good because most of the people in the crowd were teenagers, since the meeting took place in a high school. They told us that in Niger the stigmatization is so bad, 26% of AIDS patients that begin treatment stop coming within the first year, usually because they are afraid someone they know will find out!
The Sheik spoke about how we need to be compassionate towards those who are sick, and not judge them. He quoted from the Prophet Mohammed, and said, “Those who give comfort to the sick are already picking the fruits of Paradise.” He also quoted from Jesus, and from Pascal. The Pastor spoke along similar lines. He told the story of the Good Samaritan (everyone loved it), and ended with a quote from Alpha Blondy. He even had a special “AIDS Awareness” Boubou made for the event!
Finally, they had two people come and speak who have been living with AIDS for many years. They talked about the discrimination they have faced, the obstacles they have overcome, and the successful careers they have had in spite of their sickness and in spite of the additional hurdles placed in front of them by ignorance and fear. It was really inspiring.
Overall, it was a really great event, and I am so happy that the kids were there to listen and were given the chance to ask questions at the end. They were encouraged to ask anything, but most of them were shy. Finally, one girl got up and asked if they could explain how, exactly, the HIV virus is transmitted. All the other kids burst out laughing at her, and you could tell she was embarrassed. Then the Sheik jumped up, grabbed the microphone and kind of scolded them all. He said, “That is exactly the kind of question you need to be asking. Don’t be embarrassed of asking us those kinds of questions. That is why we are here, to learn. Discrimination comes from ignorance, and the ignorant ones are the ones who don’t know and do not ask questions.”
Score one for the good guys.
It is clear that there is still a long way to go in terms of education and getting rid of prejudicial attitudes, but that is true in the Western world as well. In truth, the AIDS epidemic is not as bad in Niger as it is in other countries in Africa, but they are trying to do preventative work. Also, it is great to see the Muslim and Christian leaders collaborating so closely with each other on such an important issue. I thought the whole message of the event was great – tolerance, compassion and education. Very encouraging.