Gambia: Raising awareness about HIV/AIDS

Published: 19 January 2009 0:00 CET

Moustapha Diallo, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Dakar

World AIDS Day is traditionally celebrated on 1 December, but in some remote villages in Gambia, time seems to have stopped on this date indefinitely.

“Every day is 1 December for us,” remarks Isatou Khulibally, a Gambia Red Cross Society volunteer.

“We take advantage of any occasion to talk about HIV/AIDS and its consequences, whether it be with our families or neighbours… at the market or during ceremonies,” she adds.

Women communicators

With two other volunteers, she leads a group of 20 traditional women communicators who sing songs about HIV/AIDS in Manneh Kunda, which is in the city of Basseh, not far from the border with Senegal. They sing about a variety of subjects, ranging from early marriage to HIV testing and migration.

The beat of the cans that serve as makeshift drums and the clapping hands that accompany the singing produce a strident rhythm that very soon attracts a crowd. This is an opportunity for the women to perform a play about HIV/AIDS and broadcast messages on how to prevent the epidemic, which is silently and stealthily claiming victims in their community.

Emigration is very common in Basseh. Most of the men have gone abroad to make their fortune, leaving behind their wives and children for years on end. The fruit of their hard work is visible in the construction of modern houses, which abound in the area and are the pride of the families who own them.

Tragic consequences

These social success stories often conceal tragic consequences. Some of the men return infected with HIV, while others come back to infected partners. In the villages in the area, traditional marriage customs such as sororate and levirate are still common practice, in spite of prevention efforts. These sociocultural practices can contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The Gambia Red Cross Society uses theatre as a means of informing without causing offence and of addressing taboo issues, hitherto difficult to discuss. The National Society’s volunteers and the 20 traditional communicators trained in HIV/AIDS issues have helped to break down many cultural barriers. Sexuality and its relation to HIV/AIDS is no longer a taboo subject in Manneh Kunda and neighbouring villages.

“Prevention messages are more effective when conveyed through theatre. We also use picture boxes and posters to strengthen awareness,” explains Isatou.

Voluntary HIV testing

The sketches effectively address issues such as sororate, levirate, high-risk sociocultural practices, the use of male and female condoms and voluntary HIV testing. According to Isatou, the demand for condoms has increased considerably in the area, and more and more people agree to anonymous voluntary HIV testing.

The work of the Gambia Red Cross Society, supported by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, to combat HIV/AIDS extends to several villages in the Basseh area. In spite of this, high-risk practices persist.

“It is important to step up prevention efforts and remind the population that the danger of HIV is always there,” explains Isatou.

The Gambia Red Cross Society now intends to extend the area covered by including other villages facing problems similar to those suffered by Manneh Kunda. In order to do this, it is calling on partners to support its work.