BENIN: AIDS stripping farmers of their land

Friday, November 2, 2007

Comlan Houessou certainly knows what he is talking about when it comes to the impact of AIDS on rural communities. He is a farmer in Benin who has lost everything because of HIV: the respect of his neighbours, his savings and his land. He is now fighting to rebuild his life.

Just five years ago, Houessou had two hectares of land in the Couffo region of southwest Benin. He inherited the land from his family and grew corn, cassava and cotton on it to meet the needs of his two wives and their six children.

In 2003, however, his health began to deteriorate. “It started with headaches. I told myself that it would pass, but they got worse”, he told IRIN/PlusNews at the conference ‘From research to Action: mitigating the impact of HIV/AIDS on agriculture and food security in West Africa’, which took place at the start of October in Cotonou, Benin.

His relatives attributed his illness to witchcraft, so Houessou went initially to a traditional healer, to try and relieve his pain. Many months of visits forced him to sell off his land bit by bit, which he was in no fit state to farm in any case.

"I had to pay for my treatment, giving goats as offerings. At first I used my savings but when they weren’t enough and I had to sell my land”, reported Houessou, 42.

Houessou’s health was deteriorating by the day and he ended up in hospital. After a few months, he was bed ridden and was becoming weaker and weaker but still did not know what was wrong with him. Then he overheard a conversation between two doctors.

"I heard one doctor say to another, when referring to me: ‘the one with HIV’ ”, he said. “I made a scene and decided to leave the hospital and go home. Then I went and got tested and it confirmed that I did indeed have HIV”.

“I think that they [the doctors] hadn’t told me about it because they had tested me without my consent. They could have suggested that I take the test once they knew though!” he said.

He was immediately put on antiretrovirals (ARV) drugs, the medication that lengthens and improves the lives of people living with HIV. Houessou was then confined to his house, especially since his wives were also infected with HIV, and faced rejection from his community.

“My neighbours knew and they avoided us, my wives and me”, he told us. “One morning, my wives cooked 10 kilos of rice to sell at the market, but some young people blocked their way with tree snags and forced them throw the rice on the ground”.

Thanks to the ARV treatment, Houessou slowly got strong again and decided to fight it, for himself and for others in his situation.

"I started to openly report on it and work with others to raise public awareness of the problems facing people who are infected, particularly in rural environments where there is little information on the epidemic”, he explained.

Now he heads the Benin Network of associations of people living with HIV, which comprises 46 organisations and has more than 45,000 supporters - people infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS, many of whom are from rural areas- Houessou is fighting for social and economic rehabilitation for people who are HIV positive, many of whom have lost everything.

"Often, people are exhausted before they are even tested for HIV and they have used up their resources and sold their land in an attempt to get treated”, he explained. “When they finally go to get tested, therefore, people have no further resources and the majority of them are poor people. This is a real problem in Benin”.

The stigma attached to HIV/AIDS, particularly an issue in rural areas, is another major concern for Houessou, because one of the consequences of this is that people who are infected are cautious about sharing their tests results with their partners.

He feels that this is exacerbated by ongoing traditions, such as polygamy and widow inheritance.

“When an infected man with two or three wives dies, and his wives then have to marry the brother [of the deceased] who himself may already have two or three wives, without them realising [their HIV positive status], the number of people becoming infected is multiplied”, he remarked.

The current difficult socio-economic climate is furthering the practice of inheriting women, says Houessou.

"If the husband leaves land when he dies, the wives must sell it to pay for the funeral ceremony, and even if they don’t sell it, they must stop the land being split up between the heirs, because this will make it smaller and smaller. They also need to be capable of farming the land, which is why women are forced to remarry”, he explained.

According to a study presented at the Cotonou conference, another concern lies in the fact that 80 percent of the approximately 8,420 patients currently on ARV treatment in Benin do not have food security and nearly one in four suffers from malnutrition.

A healthy and balanced diet is indispensable to people with weakened immune systems though, reminded Houessou, but “partners working in rural areas do not go into detail, they [rural populations] are underprivileged” compared to urban communities, he said regretfully.

Also, despite the fact that antiretrovirals have been free in Benin since 2004 and that access to HIV/AIDS testing and treatment has improved over the last few years – there are now has 48 treatment centres across the country – there are still regular breaks in ARV distribution, particularly in provincial centres, which remains a major concern.

“Our work [with the Network] also involves appealing to the government on the need to make treatments sustainable”, he concluded.

Thanks to his paid work with the Network, Houessou has managed to save some money and buy back a half-hectare of land, on which he grows corn and cassava to feed his wives, one of whom is on ARV drugs, and his children, all of whom are HIV negative.

However, Houessou knows that his situation is far different from that of his fellow farmers infected with HIV. “We are in need of support to get our land back and resume work on it”, he pleaded.

Source: IRIN