ABUJA, August 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sitting in his dimly-lit office in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, surrounded by files and boxes of condoms, matchmaker Ugochukwu Michael talks passionately about the part he has played in the marriages of around 100 couples in recent years.
While the popularity of dating apps and websites may make Michael’s efforts to play Cupid seem old-fashioned, his matchmaking service stands out from the rest.
All of his clients are living with HIV.
“Sometimes, I spend days without sleeping,” he said, his phone ringing non-stop as he explained how most calls come in the middle of the night when it is cheaper to call.
The 45-year-old started his service in 2012 with the desire to help those he describes as Nigeria’s “rejects” after becoming disillusioned with widespread stigma toward people with HIV.
Michael says he has some 7,000 clients on the books, ranging in age from 19 to 72. Six in seven of them are women.
He charges a one-off fee of 2,000 naira ($6) for people who work, but his service is free for the unemployed.
“You will see a lot of improvement,” Michael tells one caller. “Let’s see how it will be before the end of the month.”
The prevalence of HIV among adults in Nigeria is relatively low for sub-Saharan Africa, around one in 30 compared to one in five in South Africa, said the U.N. AIDS program UNAIDS.
Yet discrimination toward Nigeria’s some 3.5 million HIV-positive people is rife, and many struggle to enter university or find work, health experts and human rights activists say.
“Stigma is the obstacle to achieving the 90-90-90 agenda,” John Idoko, director general of Nigeria’s National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
By 2020, UNAIDS wants 90 percent of people with HIV to know their status, 90 percent of diagnosed people to be on treatment, and 90 percent of those on treatment to have suppressed levels of the virus in their bodies.
“HIV-POSITIVE SUGAR MUMMY”
After a failed attempt to migrate to Europe six years ago and the loss of his life savings from his job as a technician, Michael decided to volunteer with a Catholic organization.
Helping out at a state hospital where nurses were reluctant to get too close to HIV-positive patients made Michael aware of the discrimination they faced daily.
“I encouraged the patients to help one another do things, like go to the toilet, since they all had one thing in common.”
When the threat of Boko Haram forced him to move from the northeastern city of Damaturu to Abuja in 2012, Michael decided the time was right to launch his HIV matchmaking service.
Weary of trying to persuade government agencies to invest in his idea, he headed out into the streets of Abuja at night, hanging up around 100 banners to advertise his project.
“By the following morning, my phone started ringing - so many people were calling me,” Michael said, scrolling through the dozens of texts he receives from his clients each day.
Some of the texts ask for medical or fertility advice, while one comes from a man looking for an “HIV-positive sugar mummy”.
Yet not everyone approves of Michael’s matchmaking efforts.
When people started tearing the banners down, Michael turned to bright red spray paint. Signs reading: “HIV positive? Need husband/wife?” can be seen alongside many major roads in Abuja.
“Strangers call me to express disdain for my work ... they accuse me of encouraging promiscuity,” said the husband and father-of five, who declined to disclose if he has HIV or not.
HEALTH BEFORE LOVE
After an initial telephone conversation, most of Michael’s clients insist on coming to see him in person to talk further.
“When they come, we just sit and chat,” he said, adding that many of his patients are suicidal because of their HIV status.
Beyond setting up dates, Michael also ensures that every person he works with is registered with a specific hospital and that they are regularly taking their antiretroviral drugs.
“I cannot match-make anyone who is not on drugs - it is a lot of risk,” Michael said, sitting in his office in front of a decorative wall hanging that reads: ‘May hope encourage you’.
Michael also provides his clients with free condoms and booklets about HIV, and teaches them about safe sex. For people seeking medical advice, he refers them to a doctor.
Although based in Abuja, a photo of his advert posted on Facebook means people stretching from Rivers state in the south to the Borno in the northeast have signed up looking for love.
Flicking through several folders, Michael explains how he has a separate file for clients who have started seeing each other, another for those who have graduated to a serious relationship, and a different one for those who have married.
“I never attend weddings, he said, explaining how he was once embarrassed by the recognition he received at the marriage ceremony of one of the couples who met through his matchmaking.
In March this year, the Nigerian government signed into law a new version of the HIV/AIDS Anti-Discrimination Act, which is designed to make it easier to understand.
Yet Michael said the law has had no impact on his service, or the thousands of HIV-positive people that he works with.
“Many people don’t even know where to access drugs,” he said. “They hear about these things but have no information.
“The enlightenment is not there - it is just not there.”