It’s 4 p.m. and the Moungali market in Brazzaville is slowly emptying. Blanche Bouanga is packing up her produce while chatting with friends. She wears a T-shirt that reads “Femmes solidaires” (or “Women United”), the name of an association for women living with HIV.
A few minutes later, she takes out her cell phone and makes a call: “Hello Mr. Bouesso! It’s me, Blanche. I’m calling to tell you that I’ll be in Louingui tomorrow. I need a flat of onions, one of peppers, two flats of red sorrel, and three baskets of mangoes.”
In just a few seconds, she’s made an appointment with a small-scale farmer. For the past three years, this is how she’s been getting the fruit and vegetables that she sells. The business has provided financial security and renewed purpose for this HIV-positive widow.
Ms. Bouanga recalls the turmoil she endured five years ago. First, her husband passed away. Then she discovered that she carried the HIV virus. Not long after, her husband’s family asked her to leave the family compound she shared with them. She left with her four children and no support.
At the time, Ms. Bouanga sold condiments from a small table in the market. But she wasn’t earning enough to cover her family’s expenses. During this time of hardship, she learned about Women United.
Through the association, she met other women in similar situations and was able to get support and advice. One woman made her living selling vegetables to families. This inspired Ms. Bouanga to also sell fruits and vegetables at the market. A cash infusion of 25,000 CFA francs from her younger sister (worth about US$50 at the time) helped her get started.
Today, Ms. Bouanga is faring better. She says, “I’m managing financially. It’s important for me to support my children’s education until they are independent. I live for it.”
In her business and personal life, Ms. Bouanga is open about her HIV status. Because she is a reliable businesswoman, the small-scale farmers she deals with appreciate her courage and like collaborating with her. And she has helped change attitudes about what it means to live with HIV.
Jean Mbemba is a market gardener in the village of Kombé. He has been selling produce to Ms. Bouanga for three years. He remembers how she encouraged people to get tested during a discussion about HIV and AIDS in the village. She pointed to herself as living proof that, with treatment, HIV-positive people can live well. Mr. Mbemba adds, “We do not see her as a sick person, but as a good buyer for our produce.”
Emma Ntsoulou is the executive director of Women United. She is happy that Ms. Bouanga can provide for herself by selling fruits and vegetables. She says that Ms. Bouanga motivates other women in distress to take charge of their lives.
Ms. Bouanga is also an inspiration to her children. Her eldest daughter says that her mother’s HIV status is a family affair. For example, if Ms. Bouanga has an appointment to pick up ARVs from the outpatient treatment centre at the same time that she’s visiting farmers to buy produce, one of her eldest daughters gets her medicine for her.
Her eldest daughter says: “We do everything to ensure that she does not miss any ARVs. It’s when she is in good physical health and able to keep up with her activities that we are able to eat, [and] pay for our studies and our rent.”
This story was originally published in November 2012.