By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Additional articles in this series.
LAGOS, NIGERIAThis is not an easy country, but Lagos, Nigeria's teeming megacity, is almost fantastical in its difficulties. Rarely do 24 hours pass without a blackout, and power outages lasting weeks are common. Officially, NEPA stands for National Electric Power Authority, but everyone jokes that it stands for Never Expect Power Anytime, so those who can afford it own a diesel generator. But that's not a guarantee, because even though Nigeria is one of the world's biggest oil producers, mismanagement causes frequent fuel shortages: One AIDS researcher lost 3000 refrigerated blood samples when a power outage and a fuel shortage coincided.
Running water? Even wealthy Lagosians often lack it; they pay for trucks to fill up large tanks. Doctors wash their hands with water from buckets. Calling the police is virtually impossible, because even if your phone is
working the one in the police station probably isn't. Military dictatorships have plundered Nigeria for most of the 39 years since the country wrested its independence from Britain, and a favorite scam of "the military boys," as they are called, was to transfer government contract money into private Swiss bank accounts and pay off cronies to sign forms stating that, yes, the work had been completed even though anyone with eyes could see that nothing at all had been done. Directors of private companies often award contracts to the highest briber, and many Lagos buildings feature signs warning, "This house not for sale" because con men sell homes they don't own.
What can be relied on in Lagos? The heat. The pollution. The epic traffic jams called "go-slows" that trap millions of commuters for hours, most of them sweltering inside crowded minivan taxis. And Fela.
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the international music star who married 27 women in one day and who usually appeared on stage with nothing but his sax, the skimpiest briefs, and a joint that, as one writer put it, was the size of a small African nation-Fela championed African culture over all things white and he fearlessly excoriated the military governments that were ransacking Nigeria. Foolishly, the state boosted his standing by giving him the dissident's ultimate seal of credibility: jail time. During this year's democratic elections, which brought former military ruler Olusegun Obasanjo back into power, Fela's song "Soldier Go, Soldier Come" could be heard everywhere, accusing Obasanjo and the rest of the military boys of operating a revolving door to power.
But during the election, that song was never heard live, because Fela died in 1997 of a disease he claimed didn't exist, and certainly not in Africa: AIDS. No matter that Fela's older brother, Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, had served as the country's health minister and launched Nigeria's much-lauded early AIDS program. About the only concession Fela made to white medicine was to let Olikoye stitch up his head after the police had gashed it. There was hardly an illness African herbs couldn't cure, Fela maintained, and he dismissed condoms as unnatural, unpleasurable, and a white plot to reduce the black birthrate. He believed, says Olikoye, that "all doctors were fabricating AIDS, including myself."
By the time Fela allowed himself to be taken to a hospital, he was so far gone he never heard the test results confirming that he was infected with HIV. A few days later, deep in a coma, he choked on his own vomit and died.
Then began the fight for Fela's death-and, in a way, for Nigeria's life. Astoundingly popular, Fela carried the potential to do for AIDS in Nigeria what Rock Hudson, Magic Johnson, and Arthur Ashe accomplished in America.
Fela's most ardent fans-such as the legions of out-of-school, unemployed "area boys" who deal, steal, and occasionally riot to get a little cash-are often the groups most vulnerable to HIV. They are also the most alienated from society and authority, including doctors. Many area boys refuse to believe Fela died of AIDS, and their response reveals the complex forms that AIDS denial takes in urban Africa.
It also illuminates an impending holocaust. Nigeria's most recent national statistics, issued in 1996, estimate that almost one in 20 adults are infected. That's already perilously high, especially since Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation, home to one in every seven Africans. What if Nigeria's HIV prevalence rises to the level of some East and Southern African countries, where more than a quarter of adults are HIV-positive? Then, warns veteran Nigerian AIDS activist Pearl Nwashili, "what we have seen in the rest of Africa will be child's play."
Yet Nigeria's efforts to fight AIDS remain mired in what Nwashili calls "apathy and denial." Not even the blood supply is safe, because many of the country's numerous private clinics transfuse unscreened blood. Monitoring them is virtually impossible, largely because the once vigorous National AIDS and STD Control Program has been limping along on 40 million naira a year, which is less than half a million U.S. dollars. And the country's official rate of HIV is widely believed to be underestimated, partly because it was calculated with no data whatsoever from Lagos, sub-Saharan Africa's largest metropolis, a cauldron of at least 8 million inhabitants that swells by almost a thousand newcomers every day.