Christine*, a trained pharmacist, ran her own pharmacy in her hometown, Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire, balancing working life with two small children. Life was busy but good, until her husband died, followed two weeks later by her brother. She suspected both had died of AIDS and was convinced she was next. Tests on her children came back negative but the doctors stalled on confirming her diagnosis.
“I was infected in 1994. I was 40,” says Christine. “I didn’t think I’d still be alive today, I thought I was going to die, I got everything in order for my kids.” Unable to confide in anyone, even her mother, Christine lived in silence, such is the stigma and rejection that comes with such a diagnosis.
She lived in fear for years, only receiving an official diagnosis that she was HIV+ after moving to France in 2011. She started treatment in a French hospital, which put her in touch with Ikambéré, a day center that welcomes women mainly from sub-Saharan Africa who have HIV. The center, which has received funding from the Sanofi Espoir Foundation for the last two years, fills the first floor of an anonymous building on a busy road in the north of Paris, under the impressive shadow of the Stade de France. It has links with 12 hospitals in the city that refer women to the center following diagnosis or treatment.
“When the women first arrive here, they’re broken,” says Bernadette Rwegera, who despite the misgivings of family and friends, opened the doors to Ikambéré in 1997. “Often, they’re living in very poor conditions. Our role is to help them accept life with HIV, and that means taking their treatment and understanding that they can live a full life in spite of the disease.”
Ikambéré, Kinyawanda for Welcome House after Bernadette’s Rwandan roots, welcomes around 40 women. Communal meals, new friendships and a safe place to speak freely about the disease gradually restores the women’s self-esteem, while the range of activities on offer-sport, sewing, job search, talks on staying healthy-arm them with the emotional, physical and mental means to rebuild their lives.
“Our motto is knowledge is power,” says Rose Nguekeng, a sexual health advisor at Ikambéré, whose primary goal is prevention. “Better informed, better protected. A lot of the women got infected through ignorance, so the information I give them makes sure that will never happen again; they have to take charge of their health.”
Christine first started coming to the center because she needed help finding somewhere to stay. Now she comes to eat lunch with friends, help with official paperwork or to take a class. Outside Ikambéré, she only confides in close family about her status; even the people from whom she rents a room do not know she is HIV+.
“My daughter thought I had cancer. She’s relieved that it’s not that,” smiles Christine, who for the first time in years is making plans for her future. “Ikambéré taught me that life goes on, that I can start to hope again.”
*not her real name