Halima: “I dream of an HIV-free generation.”

This story was originally reported by Halima Abdullahi* for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Did you say you were married before?”

“You’re a widow?”

“And you’re just eighteen years old?”

The doctor asked all these questions in one breath, but I could not answer him. I was trembling. God, let this not be what I thinking. I had walked into the doctor’s office with an employer’s letter and excitement. HIV and other medical tests are routine parts of the employment background check process in Nigeria, and I was a step closer to my dream of saving enough money to go to university.

“You are HIV positive, but it’s okay!” The doctor said, after a long pause. At that moment, I could feel my life crumbling. NO, it is not okay doctor! I felt a sharp pain in my heart and my legs became stiff. I couldn’t move. I cursed the family and culture I was born into.

I was 15 years-old when I got married. I am from Northeastern Nigeria where it is not uncommon for girls to be married. I do not remember much about my wedding rites, except being unhappy. Many times before my wedding day, I begged my father to let me complete my education. I told him if I went to school I could better his life someday, but he refused. I was forced to marry a man who had a daughter older than me.

Life happened very fast after I got married. Within a year I got pregnant, my husband got very ill, I miscarried my twins and my husband died. Many memories from that traumatic chapter of my life have disappeared, but the memory of losing my twins remains vivid. I would later learn that in the community I am from, there is a myth that men who have HIV/AIDs can be cured by having sex with virgins.

Immediately after my husband’s funeral, I ran away from my home with a little money that had been given to me as a gift during the funeral greetings. I was scared that if I stayed, I would be married off to someone else. I was able to find work in a neighbouring state washing plates for a woman who sold food. In lieu of a salary, I asked to be enrolled in a school and was able to complete secondary school. That day in the doctor’s office, I felt like all my suffering had been in vain.

It’s been ten years since I was first diagnosed with HIV. I have been depressed many times, but education was my escape. Today I am a graduate, I work at a think-tank, and I am the breadwinner of my family.

Today, World AIDS Day, 900 young women in Africa will catch HIV, and over two thousand people will die of this killer. I dream of an HIV-free generation and an end to child marriage. I never tell anyone about my status because there is so much judgment around morality that comes with being HIV positive in Nigeria, but my dream is to tell the world my story one day. Maybe one person will be inspired.

*Name has been changed for privacy.
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