By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
Like so many of Africa's megacities, Lagos is linked with the rest of the country through the extended families of these immigrants, and through the road, rail, sea, and air routes that converge here. Controlling AIDS in Lagos, therefore, is critical to controlling AIDS in Nigeria as a whole. But while only a united, all-out effort can contain Nigeria's epidemic, the country remains gripped by a schizophrenic attitude toward AIDS, epitomized by brothers Olikoye and Fela: on the one hand, a face-the-facts pragmatism; on the other, a denial that is rooted in anti-white, pan-African ideology.
Resistance to the facts of Fela's death reared up almost before his corpse had cooled. "Fela's doctor came to me and said, 'What should I write as the cause of death?' " Olikoye recalls. "And I said, 'What did you find he died of?' She said it would be too terrible to write it-AIDS is such a shame. So I asked her, 'Are you going to forge a death certificate?' " The doctor relented.
The next day, flanked by most of Fela's family, Olikoye staged a press conference, announced that AIDS had killed his brother, and delivered what Fela's daughter Yeni calls "a serious lecture," pointing out that almost 2 million Nigerians were already carrying the AIDS virus and that people needed to confront the crisis.
The announcement certainly jolted some people. There are prostitutes who say that more of their johns started wearing condoms after Olikoye's announcement. But millions-including Fela's youngest son, 16-year-old Seun-don't believe HIV felled their hero. Hanging out in a crowded alley, area boy and staunch Fela fan Bob "Marlboro" Kuforiji says, in a typical comment, "It's just propaganda to say Fela died of AIDS." His logic: "Fela's a very great man, so he couldn't have died of AIDS." Condoms? Marlboro doesn't use them.
Virtually every big city has bands of street toughs, but area boys are a phenomenon unique to Lagos, where they have attained almost mythic status as urban nuisance and criminal menace. They riot to intimidate whole neighborhoods into paying them off, or just to loot. Politicians employ them to attack opponents or create a diversion-but ultimately the area boys answer to no one. This summer, in what the papers dubbed "jungle justice," area boys fought turf battles against rival gangs and against citizen vigilante groups fed up with their crimes and with police impotence. More than 50 people were killed, often burned alive.
Victor Inem, a doctor at Lagos University Teaching Hospital, studied 113 area boys and, though few locals use the term, area girls. Twenty-eight percent tested HIV-positive, an infection rate second only to sex workers. And that was six years ago. There have been virtually no other studies of area boys, but today's infection rate would almost certainly be higher, in part because the area boys act in ways that put themselves and others at risk. More than half of the women in Inem's study had prostituted themselves. Both sexes engaged in "sessions," drug binges that often included orgies. And one way they got cash for drugs and food was to sell their blood to private clinics-a practice that, according to AIDS workers and area boys alike, still continues.
"We saved millions of children with immunizations and child diarrhea treatment," says Olikoye, "but we never did much to plan for their future. They have no jobs, no schooling. They are selling scraps on the street, and they are beyond the reach of anyone."
Except Fela. He took scores of prostitutes and area boys off the streets, giving them a home in his commune, called Kalakuta Republic, and giving himself unmatched street credibility. But more than that, he transfigured their roiling frustration and sense of betrayal into art-their art. Fela's cousin, Wole Soyinka, may have won the Nobel Prize, but Fela, singing in Pidgin, won the devotion of people at the butt of Nigeria's tragic history.
Fela's music linked high-level corruption to the everyday sufferings of Lagos life, from conditions in the city's slums-where, he sang, "dey stay ten-ten in one room" and "sleep inside dustbin"-to the almost allegorical torments of the molue,the sweltering, overcrowded Lagos busses. "Every day my people dey inside bus, 49 sitting 99 standing, dem go pack themselves in like sardines, dem dey faint." These lyrics evoke "images of the slave trade," notes Babatope Babalobi, a member of Journalists Against AIDS who wrote his college thesis on Fela. Area boys say simply, "Fela was talking the truth."
So it is a cruel irony that his downfall was caused by self-deception. The humor in his dismissal of condoms-"After I remove my trouser," he was fond of saying, "why I got to wear trouser for prick?"-has become grotesque as the AIDS epidemic swells into one of the worst tragedies in Africa's history. Fela was risking his own life, but he was also risking the lives of his partners, many of whom were the street girls he took into his home. Fela was often criticized for his views on women-"Woman got no other role than making the man happy," he once said-but HIV armed his attitude with the potential to kill.