Titania K

Archive for the ‘Essays & Published Ponderings’ Category

Traditions, stigma kill the fight against HIV/AIDS, experts say

In Essays & Published Ponderings on September 17, 2009 at 5:25 pm

I snagged an early copy of my article to be released  Sat, Sept. 19 in The Spectator. The editor said he’ll mail me two copies of the real thing once it hits newsstands. Here’s a sneak preview:

Traditions, stigma kill the fight against HIV/AIDS, experts say - The Spectator. Ghana, Africa. Sept, 5 2009.
After she was diagnosed with HIV six years ago, Gifty Torkurnu went to a church to get anointed with a cure. “I was given two bottles of anointed oil and I drank and I vomited and the pastor told me I vomited the virus,” Torkurnu, 45, says.  She returned to the church five times for the treatments before she learned of her HIV- positive status from a doctor, joined a support group and began taking conventional medicine.

“Because of my denial,” she says, her son died four months ago after becoming infected through her breast milk. She is not alone.

Despite having a high knowledge of how to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS infections, many Ghanaians continue to rely on traditional cultural beliefs to avoid the disease, according to UN officials. This misinformation and denial is killing people.

Esi Awotwi, National HIV/AIDS Programme Officer at the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), says reducing the stigma associated with the illness, encouraging people to get tested and improving access to antiretroviral medications and other HIV services are the primary ways of fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS in Ghana. She acknowledges that some cultural ideas and behaviors are impeding these remedies. “We still have some people still visiting herbalists, people still visiting prayer camps for a cure,” she says.

“The problem we have in this country is that we are God-fearing people,” Torkurnu says. “Any problem we have we take it to God, so whatever the pastor says, we do. Some people are convinced that if I pray or if I do this without the antiretroviral drugs, you will be cured. But if God will cure me, it will surely come from above not from the pastor.”

She explains that traditionally in Ghana, people with HIV are thought to be bewitched. “They wouldn’t take you to the hospital. But if you don’t know your status, and think ‘I don’t know, so I must be okay,’ you’re defeating yourself.”

Fraudulent Herbalists

Many herbalists, like some pastors, claim to offer a cure for a price, but their concoctions only suppress the symptoms.

On the main road of Tema, Ashaiman, Lashibi and Kumasi, hand-painted signboards with a Dr. Nicholas Antwi’s name and phone number advertise a “fast and reliable cure for HIV/AIDS and other chronic illnesses.” In the waiting room of his large Lashibi clinic, three men sit silently on couches watching a soccer match on the television.  A receptionist leads guests one-by-one into the doctor’s office, a large room flanked by ornate twin sofas. Antwi leaves the T.V. on while he talks to this reporter.

“I have a cure,” he says. “I take the virus from the bloodstream and I take them out, I take them out. I don’t use antiretroviral drugs. I leave that for the hospitals. It’s not about the price. It takes five months and it’s gone.” Antwi refuses to reveal any of the ingredients in his concoction to test whether they are effective. Once someone has invested in his potion, he still will not disclose its contents. A refund in case it fails is also not an option.

“We have lost a lot of people who use such facilities. They have died,,” Dr. Robert Mensah, Reproductive Health Programme Officer at the UNFPA, says. “What these alternative herbal medical practitioners do is they confine the person. If the person is slim-slim they make them fat. If they have diarrhea, they give them something to make it stop. And the person thinks they are healed. But [the herbalists] only deal with the symptoms, they don’t cure the disease.”

Awotwi agrees that some of the herbal medications tested can help in the treatment of infections that come as a result of HIV, but they do not cure it.
She explains that before antiretroviral medications were introduced to Ghana in 2003, many people living with HIV were taking herbal treatments to boast their immunity. “Because they helped, sometimes people continue to visit herbalists. The herbalists think they have a cure, but they do not have a cure. Now people living with HIV have been encouraged to take anti-retroviral medications.”

There is no cure for HIV/AIDS, but antiretroviral drugs are allowing people to live long healthy lives and raise a family if they choose, Awotwi adds.

Torkurnu, who has a fiancé who tested negative, is a living testament to the effectiveness of antiretroviral drugs, “When I tell people that I am HIV positive they don’t believe me because they see that I am a very healthy woman. The perception is that since I’m not thin-thin and sick and bed-ridden I must not have it,” she says

Dangerous  Stigmas

In March 2009, 913,611 people were tested in Ghana for HIV/AIDS, according to the National AIDS Control Program’s HIV Sentinel Report. 236,157 people are known to be living with HIV in the country, the same report shows. But this number is probably higher, according to Clement Azigwe, National President of the Association of Persons Living with HIV (PLWHA). “Plenty people are walking around with HIV and they don’t even know it because of the stigma,” he says. “Eighty percent of Ghanaians say that if you are positive and you’re selling food, they won’t buy it from you.”

Despite a provision that makes it illegal to fire someone because of their HIV status, Torkurnu says she was dismissed from her work site when her employers discovered she was positive.

Patience Dogh, 20, says she cannot return to her community because it discovered she has HIV, and forced her leave.

“When people see people who have HIV they tend to shut them out,” Mensah says. “People are forcibly evicted from their accommodations, some employers fire you. When there is stigmatization, there is potential for spreading the condition.”

To encourage people to get tested, the UN is launching a National HIV Stigma Campaign and a Know Your Status Campaign, says Awotwi. “We are knocking on the doors of Ghanaian people, and that includes a provision of outreach counseling and testing services. What we really want to come out has to do with reducing stigma, emphasizing the fact that there’s hope with people living with HIV. You don’t have to be stigmatized.”

Dangerous Attitudes about Condoms

Mensah says many people in Ghana believe that using condoms is one of the major ways of protecting themselves against the virus. “Condoms are readily available to locals especially in the urban area,” he says, pointing out that in 2007, the UNFPA purchased and distributed 32 million of them. “Condom availability is not a problem, it’s attitudes over its usage that is. Its use is very low because of people’s attitudes.”

“Some people in rural areas believe that when a sexually active woman is beautiful it is because she is getting nourishment from the semen of the man. That is the mentality of some people,” Mensah says. “Others use the analogy: how do you enjoy eating toffee when it is wrapped in rubber? You need to remove the rubber before you can enjoy the candy.”

Awotwi agrees that some Africans feel that sex is less enjoyable with the use of condoms. She adds “Some people have religious beliefs which are against the use of condoms. Due to economic problems, some women can’t negotiate condom use. Some of them depend on men for economic gains. Empowerment – that is the problem.”

The inability of many people living with HIV to afford antiretroviral treatment is also causing the virus to spread. Ninety-five percent of people living with HIV in Ghana are unemployed, according to the PLWHA. The treatment cost 5 Ghana Cedis a month, causing many people not to take it. This is dangerous since the treatment makes the disease less infectious, according to UNAIDS. “Unfortunately for us the number of people who are supposed to do antiretroviral therapy, we are unable to support because of lack of funding and the need for facilities that do that,” Mensah says.

Due to the high unemployment rate and lack of accommodations faced by people living with the virus, Aziwe urges the government to provide more social services to people who are positive as a means of defeating the disease.

“We want the government to empower people living with HIV, to do more income generating activity to help support our funding,” Azigwe says. “We have to look at those infected to give them care, empowering them economically.”

Torkurnu warns Ghanaians against treating HIV/AIDS as an isolated condition that does not affect them. “Some people ask what does someone who is living with HIV look like. I say, ‘Look in the mirror and that is how someone living with HIV looks like.”


Nigerien Migrants Seek Solace in Ghana: My Overseas Article

In Essays & Published Ponderings on September 8, 2009 at 9:23 pm
Nigerien Migrants Seek Solace in Ghana By Titania Kumeh: Published Sept. 5 2009 in The Spectator, Ghana, Africa. The weekly newspaper’s online edition is in a rut, so this scanned, barely legible  image is the only copy I have to show. Here’s the story:
Nigerien Migrants Seek Solace in Ghana By Titania Kumeh: Published Spet. 5 2009 in Ghana, Africa

A five-year-old girl grasps the arms of pedestrians walking past Obra Spot at Kwame Nkrumah Circle, as her eight-year-old brother wanders nearby, stretching out his arms to passers-by and gesturing for people to feed him. Both children plead for alms while their father, wrapped in Muslim garb, sits on a cardboard plank on the sidewalk and looks on.

A similar scene occurs near Kaneshie Market where ten-year-old “Amina” lunges onto passengers inside a loading trotro and begs for money to “buy food at a chop.” The Zongo resident trails the packed vehicle as it drives away, hugging its windows for a few minutes before giving up.

In front of Accra Mall, a group of six children, some standing barefoot on the pavement, tackle the traffic entering the mall parking lot and solicit drivers for money.

These children, identified by their fair-colored skin and sidewalk status as beggars, are part of a Saharan sub-culture of migrants from Niger living in Ghana. Their ranks can be seen in Osu, Ashaiman, Circle, Kaneshie and Zongo weaving through traffic and washing car windows, begging for anything pedestrians or drivers may throw their way. Some speak a few words of English; others speak a little French; many say they live in Zongo with their parents who normally stay home while they beg.

Brahimin Mohammed (sp.), the 27-year-old father of the two children begging in Circle, migrated to Ghana four months ago because of the lack of work and food in his home country, he says. In Niger, some people are able to go to school and work, but not many. Mohammed has never attended school and is unable to read or write, so the correct spelling of his name is unclear.  He speaks some French and says that he thinks it’s okay his children beg on the streets because they go to school. “I’m confident that since they go to school, they’ll get a job,” he says. He did not say which school the children attend.

Mohammed resides in Zongo with Aisha, the mother of his children, in a house with running water and no electricity. His children beg on Circle’s streets, usually from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. but he says their situation in Ghana is still better than in Niger. “We can eat and we can wash ourselves here.”

When he can afford it, his dream is to return to Niger, buy some sheep, live as a shepherd, and teach his children about their culture. “Begging is not enough to get the money to go back to Niger,” he says. He would like to work, but he doesn’t say what he is doing to get a job.

The United Nations Refugee Agency’s website defines migrants as people who “choose to move in order to improve their future prospects of themselves and their families.”  Mohammed and many Nigerien migrants begging on Accra’s street definitely fall in this category. Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking last in the United Nations Human Development Index. Its rainfall varies, and when it is insufficient, the republic has difficulty feeding its population and must rely on food aid, according to the United States Department of State. With a rapidly growing population and the consequent competition for natural resources, the lifestyles of agriculturalists and livestock herders, people like Mohammed, are increasingly threatened.

It is possible for migrants from Niger to make a living in Ghana so that they can return to their home country, according to Edward Baffoe-Bonnie, Senior Public Relations Inspector at the Ghana Immigration Service. “When a migrant comes to Ghana to work, the best thing is to get a registration and work permit,” he says. “If he registered, it would be more possible for him to gain enough money to return [to Niger].”

To get a work permit, Mohammed will need to fill out a registration application, he will need a police report from his home country, a medical report, a resume, an educational and professional certificate, as well as a list of documents depending on whether he is applying with a company, a non-governmental agency; whether he is applying with his spouse, with ministries, departments and agencies or with a school. A registration permit costs GH200 for non-ECOWAS foreign nationals. Mohammed can’t read or write so all of the above will be very difficult. His lack of an educational certificate exempts him from the process automatically.

For his children to attend a Ghanaian school they will also “need registration and a letter of admission from the school,” Baffoe-Bonnie says. “[The immigration service] will need a letter of receipt of the school fees paid and the school will apply on behalf of the children.” Getting the school fees needed for an education will be difficult for Mohammed, since his children beg to earn money for food.

In 2008, about 700 thousand migrants arrived in Ghana, according to the Immigration Service 2008 Survey. The immigration service does not know the number of migrants in the country from Niger. The Niger Embasssy is currently launching a pilot project to calculate this high number, according to its spokesperson.

Some locals regard the Saharan migrants from Niger begging on the street with contempt while others sympathize with their plight.

“If you want to give someone money, then give it to the sick,” a man urged this reporter while forcibly grabbing the arm of a migrant child, pushing him to the ground near a group of adults wearing Muslim robes and sitting on the sand by Obra Spot. “Why don’t you people work?” he shouted, causing passers-by to gather at the site.

Ade Morris, 18, witnessed the scene. “I see that it’s unfair for these things to happen in our country,” he says. “I think that if assistance was there it could help [the migrants]. The government should give help to them. I know that these people can’t speak our language and can’t work. But always there will be beggars in every country even America. You can’t judge. You’re not God.”

Twenty seven-year-old Abraham Jibrel, a fashion designer in Accra, agreed. “We are all human beings,” he says. “Something can happen in Ghana tomorrow, so maybe Niger will host us in their country. We are all Africans and West Africans too. When I see other people from other countries in Ghana I want to accommodate them.”

French translator, Arnaud Chauvel contributed to this story.