LIVING WITH HIV/AIDS IN GHANA

The words scratched onto the wall are a haunting reminder of the day a mother lost her daughter to AIDS. With a bright smile that belies her pain, Rose (pictured below) is a Ghanaian woman who lives in abject poverty, suffers from chronic tuberculosis, and is HIV positive. For fear of persecution and rejection from her community, Rose, like many women in Ghana, is forced to keep her HIV status hidden from even her closest relatives.

In 2008, I travelled to the small town of Bekwai in Ghana’s Ashanti region to take part in a three month volunteer project with a community-based organisation provides support and protection to vulnerable women and children living with HIV/AIDS. Albert and Evelyn Annadie, the couple who founded the Kaleo Area Women’s Development Association (KAWDA), welcomed me as a 20-something graduate eager to learn about the organisation and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Ghana.

As part of the volunteer project, I conducted basic educational workshops in several schools in the area about HIV transmission. I also travelled to remote villages with KAWDA staff members to visit women like Rose in their homes and to deliver donations of food and a small amount of money. Most of the women we visited lived in conditions of extreme poverty with little or no belongings and barely a roof over their heads.

KAWDA serves as a lifeline for women who are tested positive for HIV and who are unable to seek the support they need from their families for fear of rejection and social isolation due to the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS in Ghana. Through a hospital referral, the women are connected with KAWDA, which endeavours to offer the women counselling and emotional support, and the financial means to travel to the nearest town for regular doctor visits and the lifesaving anti-retroviral drugs.

THE GHANA BEDS PROJECT

On my second visit to Ghana in 2012, I initiated a fundraising campaign to provide beds for the women and children the organisation supports. All of the women whose homes I’d visited were without even a simple mattress where the women, some of whom were extremely thin and frail, could rest and sleep comfortably. In coordination with the organisation, I photographed the women inside their homes in the hope that the pictures would help draw attention to their situation and encourage support for the campaign to purchase the much-needed beds.

The images were central in generating interest and awareness of the women’s struggle, and I was humbled to see how quickly people back home in the UK began to engage and support the campaign. The importance of having a bed to sleep on, especially when ill, is something I think most can easily relate to. With the funds secured, I returned to Ghana in February 2014 to buy and deliver the beds to the women.

Below are some of their stories.

Rose sits on the ground inside her home where for many years she slept on a sheet on the ground in an empty room.

“Since me and my husband divorced, I haven’t slept on a mattress,” Rose told me. “When I was sleeping on the ground, I was sometimes getting sick with pneumonia, but now I’m comfortable. I was thinking I would sleep on the ground for the rest of my life, but now I have benefitted from this project. I can’t express how happy I am to have my own mattress. And I’m very thankful to KAWDA because now I feel I am part of a community.”

In the remote villages of Ghana’s Ashanti region, HIV/AIDS is a condition that carries a devastating stigma and a dangerous lack of understanding that often results in rejection, even by family members, and sometimes persecution against those who are affected by it.

Behind her gentle smile, Alimatu’s suffering was clear to see. Extremely thin and weak, she lived through the final stages of AIDS in her family home, yet alone in the knowledge of her condition. Like many who live with HIV/AIDS in Ghana, Alimatu was unable to reveal her HIV status to her family for fear of being rejected and isolated as a result of the stigma and associated shame. She died shortly after this photo was taken in February 2014.

Rose sits on her mattress she received from the Ghana Beds Project.

Rose and her family are pictured sitting on the mattresses they received from the campaign.

Adwoa, one of KAWDA’s members and a beneficiary of the Ghana Beds Project, is pictured outside her home in a small village near the town of Bekwai. A grandmother of six, Adwoa lives alone, making and selling booms, which provides her with a very small and sporadic income.

Three years ago, Adwoa became very ill and was admitted to hospital where she was put on a drip and given a blood transfusion. The hospital made contact with KAWDA to seek help on her behalf following a positive HIV test. No one in the village knows of her condition, not even her closest family members, only KAWDA. She says it is because she is afraid that she would be persecuted and rejected from society if people knew she has HIV. 

Adwoa lives in a small hut made of mud, which requires constant repair, especially when it rains. With only a small bed inside that belongs to her husband, Adwoa sleeps most nights on the ground. She explained that although she is still married to her husband, since he took a second wife she decided to separate from him. Her husband does not know of her HIV status, despite the likelihood that he, too, may be HIV positive. She said having her own bed would make her life a lot easier and more comfortable.

Salimatu sits on her mattresses outside her home.

KAWDA members and beneficiaries of the Ghana Beds Project.

Mother of two Martha lives in a small, remote and hard to reach village in the Bekwai district of Ghana’s Ashanti region. She found out she was HIV positive around four years ago when she became very sick and was taken to hospital. She later suffered a stroke, which has left her disabled and without the full use of one arm and one leg.

Every month she travels to the nearest town of Bekwai to receive her anti-retroviral treatment, which is keeping her symptoms somewhat at bay. She became infected from her husband who is no longer with her. She has no family for support and no one in her village knows of her HIV status. She told me that if they found out she would be thrown out and shunned by everyone she knows.

She does not yet know if her three-month-old baby is infected with HIV. She gave birth in the hospital and so the baby was given drugs during and after birth to try to prevent the transmission from mother to baby. She has to wait until the baby is a year old to find out if she is positive. 

Before receiving a mattress, Marta and her baby slept on a mat on the hard ground.

A huge thank you to everyone who supported the campaign and helped make life a little easier for the women of KAWDA.