AIDS education in the marketplace

Sister Felicia MuonekeThe famous Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, stressed the importance of spending time among the people, listening carefully to find out what issues were important for them. In Lagos, Sister Felicia Muoneke (right) devised something similar when taking her first steps in tackling the problem of raising awareness about HIV and AIDS. She had already contacted other doctors who – like herself – were anxious about the scale of the problem.

Among a total population of more than 127 million people, an estimated 8% were living with the disease. In one year it was thought, close to half a million people may have died from it. Some estimates for the number of children orphaned by the disease were as high as 2.6 million. A number of agencies were involved, but she suspected that more time was spent on collecting statistics than on providing a caring service to those who were suffering.

She found the trends in HIV prevalence among women attending antenatal clinics ranged between 2.6% in low sero-positive areas, and up to 6.8% where it was high. She became convinced that raising awareness and education about the disease at all levels was essential, and where possible arranging Behaviour Change Workshops.

Excellent volunteers were coming forward for training, to work in communities within the Catholic parishes. This called for engaging the services of experienced resource people for the training of trainers. The big question for her was ‘where to start?’

“I felt out of touch with the reality experienced by those who are most likely to be affected, I felt the best place to learn was in the market place where I could talk to the women. I would wander around, posing as a customer and pricing their goods. Sometimes I would buy things like peppers or tomatoes – anything to begin a conversation.

“On some occasions, when I came across a hairdresser, I would get a hair-do. That was a great way to introduce the subject of HIV and find out how much the people knew and what their attitudes were. At taxi parks, I would begin by enquiring about going to a distant part of the city and get bargaining about the price. After a while, I would get around to the topic I most wanted to hear them discuss.

“At all these places, I would try to find out how much the people knew, or if they had any information at all about HIV and AIDS. Generally, almost all had heard little bits here and there. Most of the time it was very inaccurate misinformation. Without telling them I was a doctor, I tried giving some basic information, and tried to raise a little awareness against the surrounding noisy, hassled environment.

“This gave me a background on which I could plan workshops. Eventually, we started running these workshops among church groups, health clinics and in schools. Some families then invited me to speak to them and to talk to some members whom they suspected needed to be encouraged to go for testing.”

These first steps helped to shape the plan for a more co-ordinated approach to the problem. A year later, Sister Felicia found herself deeply involved in the organisation of an important Conference run by MMM in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, on HIV/AIDS. The 75 participants included MMM Sisters, staff members and members of other religious congregations who are working with the HIV pandemic. This is a problem which is expected to affect Nigeria for a long time to come.