I began World Aids Day in a cheap motel with a beer for breakfast. Maybe I should explain. For my first week in Kafanchan/Kagoro, one of the staff from the Fantsuam Foundation has been coming to collect me in the morning, rightly assuming that leaving me to find my own way would result in me ending up on the back of a milk carton with a “Missing Since….” under my photo. Most of the time, it’s been Philip who has drawn the short straw and driven me to work. Philip’s vehicle is a wonder, as in I wonder how it keeps going. The handles for rolling down the windows have long since broken off and only one remains, so we take turns attaching it to our respective doors when we need some air. One time, when my curiosity (and nerves) got the better of me, I snuck a peek at the speedometer to see how fast we were going, only to find that the needle was indeed buried, but not in the top end. It was gone altogether, likely keeping the missing door handle company. My seatbelt provided little comfort, as it would only be effective in giving me a slight burn on my way through the windshield.
On this day, Philip said we would be taking a short detour on our way to the Foundation. Ever eager to explore, I agreed, thinking we would be on our way to look for door handles or the like. But auto repair wasn’t on the agenda. “We’re going to my quiet place,” said Philip, somehow making our destination sound both peaceful and ominous. When we pulled up to the gate of the motel, I started reaching for my Hausa phrasebook to find the translation for “I like you, but not in that way”. We walked in through the main entrance and turned right, ending up in the lounge. “Sit here and I’ll get us some drinks”, said Philip. Phrasebook, don’t fail me now.
Returning from the bar, Philip sat down and told me that this was the place he liked to come and relax when he needed a break. He would often come on his own, just to read the paper or have a drink. At this point, our drinks arrived, a Coke for him and a mega-size beer for me. I looked at my watch and confirmed that yes, it was only 9:30 am. The waiter cocked an eyebrow at me as he poured the beer, as if to say “How big an alcoholic ARE you?” Philip had seen me drinking the same type of beer the previous night and assumed it was my drink of choice, no matter what time of day it was. Not wanting to hurt his feelings, I started knocking it back. At the end of the beer, Philip got up and said, “OK, let’s go now”. Yeah, man, let’s go and kick some AIDS ass. AIDS sucks and we rock! Hmmm. Maybe the beer went to my head a little.
Arriving at the gates of the Fantsuam Foundation, we found the World AIDS Day ceremony already in full swing, with drums thundering and trumpets blasting. I entered to find the courtyard decked out with canopies, with the band camped under the one on the left side and spectators seated under its opposite. A DJ was busy setting himself up nearby. I found a seat and quickly started unpacking my camera. Soon after, the Director of FF found me and recruited me as photographer for the event. I was happy to sign up, since it meant that I now was officially sanctioned to be my usual pain in the ass with the camera.
After the band finished its overture, one of FF’s staff took the microphone and introduced the local dignitaries in attendance, asking each to come up and speak in turn. The DJ, perhaps eager to compete with the band, decided to make his mark early. After each speaker was announced, the DJ augmented the crowd’s applause with his own carefully selected sound effects. I’m not sure how impressed the local chiefs were with having their names followed by laser gun blasts and robotic chirps, but I sure enjoyed it. Most of the speeches were given in Hausa, so I filled in the time taking the official photos of each speaker as well as some of the crowd. The kids were great subjects – very eager to get in front of the camera.
Perhaps it was the heat (already scorching at 11 am) or maybe it was the speeches themselves, but the crowd didn’t seem to be overly enthusiastic in their responses. It may be the case that speeches regarding HIV have started to become repetitive, so the message starts to get lost. Or it may be that this audience was already aware of the importance of HIV prevention and care, so an element of preaching to the converted came in to play. In any event, the response of the crowd was more energetic for the next participants, a group of children performing a short play on the importance of HIV testing. The kids were charming and played their parts well. I especially liked the young guy who played the delinquent drunk among them, staggering around with a Coke bottle substituting for the demon alcohol.
The event coordinator followed the group with his own piece, a letter written by HIV to the people of Nigeria. It was quite creative, although it did amplify the A and B of the ABC strategy and left the C almost as an afterthought. Not sure whether that’s reflective of the official Nigerian policy or the choice of the speaker. (For those who don’t know – the ABC strategy for fighting HIV is (A)bstinence from sex, (B)eing faithful to your partner, and using a (C)ondom).
With the coordinator’s speech concluded, it was time for the showcase event on the agenda, the procession around the Bayan Loco neighbourhood. A banner proclaiming World Aids Day was stretched in front of the group as it assembled. The number of marchers wasn’t large, perhaps a hundred people in total, including a number of children orphaned by HIV. But given the size of the community, this was a major event.
The trumpets and drums resumed their call, the gates of the Foundation swung open, and the procession began its circuit. As we made our way along the route, the reactions of those watching us pass ranged from bewilderment to amusement to enthusiastic support. My presence on the march may have been an unfortunate distraction, given the number of calls of “Batauri!” that I heard. Also detracting from the experience were a few clowns on motorbikes who refused to wait until the procession had passed, choosing instead to drive through the middle of it. Thankfully, most people here are used to being close to the bikes, so the group was unfazed by the interruption.
The entire march lasted for only ten minutes or so, but given the heat of the day, I must admit I was happy for its abbreviation. As we walked back into the Fantsuam compound, I headed for the shade, but many of my companions weren’t ready to quit yet. Moving to the centre of the courtyard, they began to dance, refusing to let the band retire. Taking his cue from them, the DJ fired up his sound system, and soon the whole area was filled with music and dancers determined to end this day in celebration. Whether they danced in tribute to those lost to HIV or as a salute to the spirit of those who continue on, their reasons were their own and there was no need to explain.