Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Exode and HIV/AIDS

85% of the village's men leave after the growing season to find work in other countries; most of them return in May. Meanwhile, women do much of the harvesting work, and stay behind with the children.

I'm sitting in the PC Medical Officer's presentation about HIV/AIDS in Niger; he's listing off a bunch of grave statistics about rates among nationals and volunteers. The official reported AIDS rate in Niger is 1.8%, but it is almost certainly higher...hard to know because it's taboo to talk about. I assume that many young men contract HIV during exode--the 3-9 months per year when they leave the villages to seek employment in wealthier countries. It's not even just young men; really it's anyone who sleeps with a prostitute during that long time away. Then the men come home and infect their wives.

Although I haven't heard any talk of HIV/AIDS in my village, I did recently have a pretty candid conversation about prostitution. Some male villagers and I were talking about the pros and cons of going on exode; I had asked a bunch of questions, like "Do men look forward to exode? Do they prefer to be away, or to be at home in the village? Why do some men stay away longer than others? What do people think of men who stay away for so long?" The guys I was talking with--Ibrahim, Idi, Issiah, and a few other older men--seemed pleased to talk about everything. They said that they enjoy exode because there are so many more amenities than in the village. Usually they are in big cities in Nigeria, Ghana, Bukina Faso, etc., so they have access to electricity (fans, refrigerators, good food). They laughed when I asked them if being away was more the "good life" than in the village: "Of course it is!" And at that, I took a little offense, "But what about leaving your family?" To which they said that yes, it's hard to be away from their wives and children, but that everyone likes to get $$ in the village, and it's only natural to leave once farming season ends and to return before it begins again the next year.

While they're away, they accept any kind of work: construction, cement, selling trinkets on the street. They send cash home with friends, and when they come back they also bring new clothes for everyone in their extended family. For many--if not most--families, this is the only source of monetary income: $ made by the men in the family while they are on exode. Guys from ages 18 to 40 or 50 seem to go; I'm told that by December, 85% of the men will have left my village, not to return till around May. Some men leave for much longer, a full year or two, depending on where they go, and whether there are other men who can help them farm their fields in their absence. When I asked about this, the opinion of men who leave home for so long, the topic of prostitution suddenly came up. Ibrahim explained that in some cases, men who haven't been able to make/and/or save much money on exode won't come home because they have nothing to show for their work. He then added that often, these men spend the money they made on prostitutes, and just never end up coming back. I was surprised to hear him bring that up; it wasn't a big deal, I guess, to mention. He emphasized that this behavior is Bad, and the other old guys agreed, although they did so jokingly, kind of in the same way that people joke about men who visit prostitutes in the states.

I don't really know how many of the 85% of men who leave my village for work this year will visit prostitutes. Or how many of them will use condoms, or how many of the prostitutes have HIV/AIDS, or how many of the men will contract HIV/AIDS. All of the possible numbers are frightening, but none of them upsets me more than the number of wives who could be infected as a result of their husbands' careless behavior. The thought of women, mothers, who work year-round in a hot, harsh, unforgiving climate, who take care of half a dozen kids all day, who get no break from the village life even once in their lifetimes, the thought of them being infected with HIV/AIDS and never knowing it, but eventually dying from it and seeing their children die from it...it's a cruel, unjust, infuriating possibility.

I don't know who or how many people in my village have HIV/AIDS, but I assume it's present...and let me be clear...that even as I assume it is present, I also assume that the men who become infected do so ignorantly; this is not a story about evil husbands vs. angelic wives. It is about people engaging in risky behavior, of which the consequences are unknown, or distant, or misunderstood.

1 comment:

Peggy said...

Jessica, what compassionate clear-sightedness you are gaining in this experience...like you say, it isn't a good vs. bad situation, but the results can nevertheless be so tragic...