Lagos, Nigeria. Wikimedia Commons

A People of Orphans

Three million HIV-positive people in Nigeria. From a research project on AIDS to the encounter with 2,000 university students from Lagos. The testimony of one who is involved in providing basic care.
Annamaria Chiarabini

Nigeria has more than 120 million inhabitants, of whom about 3 million are HIV-positive. Chiara Mezzalira, head of the AVSI (Association for Volunteers in International Service) project, has been involved for some time in basic health care and prevention. Some months ago, when she had to do a KABP (Knowledge, Attitude, Belief, Practice) investigation on AIDS in the population of the state of Lagos, Chiara thought of involving our university students from Lagos, who were on vacation at the time. The interviews they conducted brought out confusion, instrumentalization, and the urgency for a more substantial commitment.

It was the beginning of some very intense months. The aim was to let ourselves be provoked by the dramatic reality of AIDS and to get busy preparing a “gesture” for the students of the University of Lagos, on the occasion of World AIDS Day.

How can we describe the dizzying challenge we lived, this, our mysterious entering ever deeper into reality, all together? We met, with about twenty of our university students, for a two-day workshop. We began by judging what normally is proposed by flyers in the numerous prevention campaigns organized by the various local and international agencies. Our first great discovery revealed the difference in method that distinguishes us. While everyone tries to give a solution a priori, we start out from the ultimate questions of meaning that give a “focus” and tension to our lives, the questions that reality is constantly raising. It seemed to us that the weightiest responsibility was openness to the dramatic questions that an illness like AIDS brings with it: in what does my happiness really lie? What is the meaning of pain? What does it really mean to love? And, if the most effective prevention of AIDS involves abstinence and fidelity, what is their value; what do they have to do with my happiness?

The Religious Sense with its unforgettable pages, the scene of Girolama and Miguel Mañara, the surprise of saying to ourselves, “How true it is! How great it is to love like this!” and understand that this is something very different from “Play safe, use condoms,” as everyone tries to make people believe. Martin, when we met to judge this experience, said, “I thought I had been called for the usual thing: someone would indoctrinate me and ask me to repeat to others what I was told. Instead, when we began reading The Religious Sense and then Miguel Mañara, I was challenged to try to understand my need for happiness and affection, and then after this we came together to prepare a cartoon from the scene of Miguel Mañara and a flyer, and we went on television to give testimony of it.”

AIDS touches man’s deepest need, which is his happiness, but there is a weakness in us that does not let us seek the truth; the violence of the common mentality makes us reduce the “I” to a reaction, love to sex, freedom to “do what you want.” This is why we need a company that can help us to rediscover this passion for the truth and sustain us on our journey.

A real journey was made, and everything emerged among us, starting from what we are living. Victor, a first year medical student, told us, “This work on AIDS challenges me to make a change. Among us students, sex is glorified; it is not only a question of pleasure, but of your substance as a man. With your friends you talk about how many girls you have and with how many you make love. And since each one wants to be a man, sex is in first place on our scale of values. And this was true for me too. But our humanity sooner or later cries out the truth. Thus it happened that I sometimes said to myself, ‘Do I really want this? Is this really enough for me?,’ but I didn’t know what I was looking for, what it was that I really wanted, so I went on just as before without giving any weight to those moments.

… I needed for someone to tell me what it was about. This is what happened to me with you, with our company. This companionship gives me courage, it makes me see what I am looking for, it takes me into reality. At times I think about what could happen, that my friends from before might exclude me from our business or that they might leave me out of things! But what I see in this companionship is too beautiful not to accept the challenge!”

It has truly been a challenge, for everyone. Pascal, James, Victor, Martin, and Luisa have taken part in two TV shows and a press conference.

While this cultural work was being pursued, we began thinking about a gesture at the University of Lagos. We presented lots of music with the Plantashun Boiz, a Nigerian group very popular with young people, interspersed with a scientific presentation and two testimonies, one by Rose from Uganda and one by Victor.

At the entrance to the auditorium, two large GS exhibitions were set up, on “Freedom” and “Morality.”

It was incredible. There were about two thousand university students, there primarily to hear the band and only slightly interested in the other parts of the program. A spectacular example of what violence among young people means and an incredible show by our students, certain of the truth of what we are living.

Pascal said that at 5:30 the next morning, a student came to his room to ask for a brochure on the “Freedom” exhibition which Pascal had presented to him the evening before. He had to leave to go home, but he did not want to forget what he had heard.

Victor pointed out to us that at the end of the evening, not one of the flyers we had prepared was left on the ground, whereas usually everything gets thrown away. He recalled the impressive silence that fell on the entire auditorium when, at the end, we projected a slide of Van Gogh’s Starry Night with the words of The Ballad of True Love and we played The Ballad of True Love sung by Valentina from New York. Alex, speaking of his experience, said, “I have joined this work because in everything we do there is something very alive; there is a Presence among us, and this makes our approach very different, it gives us a great awareness.”

Martin: “The common mentality is in me as in the students in Unilag. I am like them! But this company always calls me back from my distraction. We do not propose a solution, we propose a search, and we propose ourselves as a companionship in this adventure.” Joseph (who has just encountered the community): “This company has happened to me! The most beautiful thing in my life! I’m learning about myself.”

Chiara: “What happens among us and what has happened in some of the young people who are present is the sign that the truth always imposes itself and always happens again.”