WEST AFRICA: A life-changing highway

Friday, September 19, 2008

If you live along the main highway linking Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire's economic hub, with Lagos in Nigeria, it is almost impossible to ignore the many AIDS awareness messages along the route, travelled by 47 million people each year.

"A few years ago I would never have believed it was so easy to get tested [for HIV], since it's so difficult to talk about AIDS in our communities," said Madeleine Abboh, a hairdresser in Hillacondji, a town in Benin near the border with Togo.

Abboh was attending the 'Caravane pour la vie' (caravan for life), an annual travelling HIV/AIDS awareness campaign organised for the third successive year by the Abidjan-Lagos Corridor Project in the five countries - Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria - that the road goes through. She took advantage of the event to be tested for HIV, as 79,000 other people between 2005 and 2007 have also done.

This regional project, launched in 2003 by the World Bank and funded by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria since 2007, has focused on often neglected border areas between countries and groups of people who depend on the 825km road and are particularly vulnerable to HIV: truck drivers, sex workers, security forces, traders and communities.

Around 800,000 people have been reached by the awareness campaign since the project began. According to an audit report at the end of 2007, more than 18 million condoms had been distributed.

Radio – a preferred form of media

All available means of communication were used to reach target groups: more than 5,900 radio and 50 television commercial spots were produced and broadcast on the project's partner stations, as well as programmes aimed at vulnerable groups.

"The programmes scared people," said Jean Discipline Adjomassokou, mass media officer of the Corridor Project. "In Hillacondji, sex workers abandoned their trade as they no longer had any clients, and brothel owners were forced to close down."

Partner radio stations were encouraged to broadcast programmes as often as possible, so that the "target groups could have the opportunity to listen to them at any time of the day, depending on their jobs," Adjomassokou added.

Sometimes the results were immediate. A young motorist, who asked not to be named, said he was parked near the border between Benin and Nigeria one day, in the middle of having casual sex, when a radio programme started on which the presenters and guests were emphasising the importance of wearing a condom when having risky sex.

"I was ashamed and I couldn't carry on with the act, [I] lost my erection," he told IRIN/PlusNews. "A few days later I started having problems with my penis. When I went to the hospital, the doctor [told] me that it was gonorrhoea [a sexually transmitted infection].

"I knew I had been lucky, and that I could have caught HIV if my casual partner had had the virus. Since then I no longer have unprotected sex with casual partners," he said.
The Corridor Project originally covered eight areas, but now operates in 22 and has expanded its work to non-border areas. "Lots of people criticised us a few years ago because we limited our work to border regions," said Harvey de Hardt-Kaffils, the project's information, education and communications officer.

"They asked us to expand our range, which we've done, but it still isn't enough; we need to do more."