Truth Teller

3 minute read
Michael D. Lemonick and Gilbert Da Costa/Nasarawa

Kabiti Ishaya was 13 when she was offered the chance to leave her small Nigerian village of Biliru and move in with relatives in Lagos so she could go to school. But the dream turned into a nightmare when her uncle raped her. She fled back to the village, where things got even worse: Ishaya, now 24, tested positive for HIV, and when she went public with the diagnosis, all hell broke loose. “Everywhere I went,” she says, “fingers were being pointed at me. There was a day I was walking to the marketplace, and the entire street was deserted for me.” Ostracized by her family, she moved to an abandoned building on the outskirts of the village.

But rather than give up, Ishaya began helping others. In 1999, when she was 18, she signed up as a volunteer for an HIV/AIDS group. And in 2000 she formed her own organization, Hope for the Living. “I go to schools and health centers to talk to people about HIV/AIDS,” she says. She threw open her home to people who were dying of AIDS, including her group’s volunteers, even though she was scarcely able to feed them. “I became their mother, father and everything,” Ishaya says. “It was tough.”

It got tougher. In the wake of the first African summit on HIV/AIDS, which took place in Nigeria in late 2000, Nigeria’s President, Olusegun Obasanjo, held photo ops in which he hugged HIV-positive people, one of whom was Ishaya. Weeks later, she was horrified when posters, newspaper ads and giant billboards appeared all over the country, showing her embracing the President. A rumor began circulating that he had given her half a million dollars–not entirely preposterous, given the corruption in Nigeria’s government. Beggars besieged her, and relatives, among them those who had shunned her, began demanding help, even though she could barely afford food for herself. Her house was raided three times by gangs looking for money.

Finally, she had to flee once more, eventually relocating to a remote settlement called One-Man’s Village. She runs a makeshift hair salon and sets aside a couple of hours each day for HIV/AIDS advocacy. But “my people need me,” she says. “They have sent messages to me that I should come back.”

They do need her. Although most of Nigeria’s estimated 4 million HIV/AIDS victims live in remote places like Biliru, “the fight against HIV/AIDS is being fought in big cities, expensive hotels, huge jeeps and office buildings,” Ishaya says matter-of-factly. “The people who desperately need help in rural areas are not getting anything. I can’t stand it and will speak the truth.”

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