“I have lost a child; he was six months old. I know the grief of a mother who loses her child. My husband had HIV/AIDS but he never told me about it. I would never have thought that a child born with HIV could die before his first birthday.”
With a warm handshake, Oremta comes to greet us. She is in a hurry. I follow her through a nice courtyard surrounded by humble houses in the middle of which a mango tree offers shade. Oremta is 36 and has three beautiful children. Since she lost her husband to HIV/AIDS eight years ago, she has been living in this neighborhood of N’Djamena, the capital of Chad.
After a long silence, she continues telling her story. “When I discovered I was HIV positive, I almost killed myself. My family gave me the courage to keep going. Today, I think about the future and if I meet a serious man, I could even start over,” she says while her son, Joh, keeps playing around and tries to interrupt mamma. Oremta says that when her husband died she was pregnant with Joh. “Thanks to the follow up and treatment, I feel better and what is more important, my child is healthy.”
The story of Oremta is one of many other stories of courageous women infected with HIV who did not give up. UNICEF supported Oremta in becoming a peer educator by helping her facilitate behavior change discussions in her community. She is one of 72 women peer leaders living with HIV who gave birth to seronegative children thanks to the Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission Programme in Chad. They have organized more than 470 educative discussions which helped initiate a dialogue on HIV and maternal and child health, involving more than 16,000 participants.
The awareness session that Oremta leads is starting in a few minutes and participants are gathering. When Irene arrives, Oremta greets her and invites her to take a seat.
Irene, 20, is the mother of a four month old baby. She also lost her husband during her pregnancy.
“Oremta’s story during the awareness sessions really touched me. Thanks to her advice, I understood that AIDS was not a curse. Since then, I have been on medication. My first child, Bienvenue (“Welcome”), was born seronegative and he is the only hope I have,” she explains.
Oremta takes the child in her arms and proudly tells me that Bienvenue is the fruit of her community work. “This little boy is the living proof that we can live with HIV and give birth to healthy children,” she says.
When the session starts there are around 30 participants–elderly women, young ladies, and young men–gathered in a circle around Oremta. I witness how passionate the discussions are, and men seem particularly interested. They ask many questions. Oremta wonders if some of them are HIV positive themselves but she doesn’t want to ask directly. “These conversations are also good for that,” she whispers to me.
The meeting is almost at its end and Oremta concludes: “Don’t feel ashamed. Get tested, and don’t be afraid of talking about your serology. You can save yourself, and also the people around. The future of your children is in your hands.”
Nancy Ndal-lah is a Communication for Development Specialist with UNICEF in N’Djamena, Chad