It’s 10 o’clock in the morning. A couple walks hand-in-hand to the health centre in the small village of Ayou, 50 kilometres from Cotonou, the largest city in Benin. Their names are Koba Essou and Nan Aballo and they are farmers. Today, they will take a voluntary HIV test.
At the health centre, they are welcomed by staff from an NGO called CPADES that works on social and economic development. The NGO started working with the health centre to test villagers in 2005.
As the couple enters the screening room, a doctor from the NGO congratulates them. Dr. Ahovi Jerome says it’s important for everyone to get tested. He adds that protection is essential when having sex with multiple partners.
Radegonde Aihou is the director of CPADES. Her organization studied the risk of HIV transmission in the village of Ayou. In 2005, the village had an HIV prevalence rate of 13.5%. By contrast, official statistics show that the national HIV prevalence rate in Benin was 1.7%. By 2016, the national prevalence rate had dropped to 1.0%.
Despite the risk associated with high prevalence, the decision to get tested went against social and cultural norms in the community. At first, Ms. Aballo was hesitant to talk with her husband about HIV and AIDS. But she finally broke the taboo. Her husband would not listen at first. But eventually they made a joint decision to get tested.
Ms. Aballo says, “We have a responsibility to save our own lives and the lives of the people we love from HIV and AIDS.”
In the past, Mr. Essou did not believe in the existence of HIV and AIDS. But the death of his friend from an AIDS-related disease, along with public education by the NGO, changed his mind.
Mr. Essou no longer doubts that HIV and AIDS are devastating his village. He worries about the burden of HIV on households that are already in a precarious situation. He notes, “When the body fails, crops fail.”
While couples like Mr. Essou and Ms. Aballo are breaking taboos, myths about HIV and AIDS persist in Ayou. Many villagers believe that HIV is caused by women’s infidelity or that it is a curse.
Fear of being stigmatized leads many to avoid testing. This worries Ms. Aballo. She says, “If nothing is done to encourage voluntary testing, [HIV] prevalence in Ayou will remain high.”
This story was originally published in December 2012.