Young Senegalese Woman Wrestles With HIV ‘Secret’

CRS Regional Information Officer Lane Hartill was in southern Senegal and Gambia last week,interviewing people who are HIV positive. He sent in this post.

Babinette wants to talk about her love life. There’s this guy, you see. I’ll call him Abdul. And he’s interested in her. Very interested. He’s ready to pop the question.

But we can’t talk about him here, not in her sister’s café; there are too many people she knows within earshot. It’s not Abdul she’s hiding; it’s something else, something much more serious. So we go outside. I kick the driver out of the CRS pickup, roll up the windows, and Babinette tells me her secret.

The story starts in 1992 in Gambia. Babinette (a name that she chose to replace her own) fled there after her village in southern Senegal was attacked by rebels. She was single at the time, having already separated from her first husband. She met a man in Gambia, fell in love and they married. He was a nice man, but he had an odd habit: taking medicine everyday. He did this for years.

“This medicine you’re taking, what’s it for?” she asked.

“Nothing,” he said. “I’m sick.”

Not long after, Babinette started getting throbbing headaches, her temples pounded. When she told her husband she was going to the doctor, he told her he had to go on a trip. She tested positive for HIV. “He didn’t even wait until I got back with the hospital results,” she says, her voice rising. “He knew. And he left.”

She returned to Senegal. Because of her HIV status, Babinette contracted other illnesses which rendered her legs useless. For more than two years, she couldn’t walk. Her mom and younger sister had to move her. She eventually was able to use a wheel chair, then crutches. She now goes twice a week to a massage therapist. She also has electronic muscle stimulation treatment. She told me the physical handicap was worse than the HIV.

“I couldn’t handle (not being able to walk),” she says. “I wore out the entire family; I wanted to die. But with the virus, if you take your treatment, you don’t bother anyone.”

Along with us in the truck was an HIV counselor who works for CRS’ partner, SIDA Service. He is physically handicapped. He said that people who test positive for HIV and who are handicapped have a double burden. Some of them, after they are told their status, refuse to believe it, disappear, and don’t come back for treatment.

But Babinette did. She’s better now, walking with an almost imperceptible limp. She’s now in the position many young HIV positive African women find themselves: will she marry again?

That’s when she brings up Abdul, the new boyfriend. He’s five years younger than she is and ready for the altar. She doesn’t want to tell him she’s HIV positive. She’s dropped hints. “For example, if I had AIDS, what would you do?” she asked him. “Aren’t you afraid of AIDS?” He said no.

“If he proposes, I’m going to tell him I won’t have anymore children,” she says. “He’s told me even if I don’t have kids, it’s not a problem.”

Right on cue, her phone rings. It’s him. He’s on his way. She smiles, but admits she’s on the fence. She says she’ll tell him the truth, she’s just not sure when.

As for ex-husband who left her in Gambia, she ran into him in the market late last year.

“I saw him, and I got goose bumps,” she says.

“Come here,” he told her. “I want to explain.”

“You have nothing to explain to me,” she said. “You are evil and mean. People like you spoil lives.”

With that, she walked off.

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