Emmnauel Ugochukwu Michael runs a dating agency in Nigeria for people with HIV-AIDS. He helps them escape from isolation, rebuild their lives and recover their sense of dignity.
Emmanuel Ugochukwu Michael's mobile phone never stops ringing. The 45-year-old takes every call and has a friendly chat with each caller. He often gets as many as 100 calls a day, which invariably end with the same question. "Are you HIV positive?" It is a question which some people might find offensive, but Michael takes it in his stride. He runs Nigeria's first dating agency for people with HIV-AIDS. These days everybody in Nigeria seems to be talking about Michael's agency. He has spread his message far and wide. "HIV+ need wife or husband?" reads the graffiti which - complete with his telephone number - he has sprayed on walls, fences and stonework throughout the Nigerian capital of Abuja.
Michael trained as an electrician. The first time he picked up his spray can was in 2012. He'd already been visiting people with HIV in hospital. These encounters made a deep impression on him. "When I looked into their faces, I caught myself thinking this is no life for them and I wondered how I could help."
Women under pressure to marry
The official figure for the number of people with HIV-AIDS in Nigeria is 3.5 million, but the real figure is probably twice or three times as high. Those who know they are infected generally keep this knowledge to themselves. There is a huge fear of being stigmatized. Finding a partner is almost impossible. Yet women in Nigerian society are under pressure to find a husband and get married when they are young. "It is part of our culture. A man can wait until 50 before marrying. But once a woman reaches 30 or 35, then menopause starts to kick in and life can become traumatic," Michael said. In many African cultures, a marriage without children isn't a proper marriage.
35-year-old Gloria is one of the women whom Michael has been able to help. That's not her real name as she doesn't wish to reveal her true identity. A few years ago her family started pressuring her into finding a husband. "Everybody said I should get married." Because Gloria is HIV positive, she thought marriage was out of the question. She kept her HIV status a secret. The only person she told was her mother.
Infected despite precautions
Gloria doesn't know how she became infected. It could have happened while she was at the hair dressers or at the hospital where she worked. In spite of all the safety precautions, she must have pricked herself with an infected needle. Gloria's mother eventually gave her Michael's phone number and persuaded her to call him. "After the phone call, I went to see him. He gave me counseling, we prayed and he really encouraged me to battle on in my life."
When Gloria discovered that she was HIV positive, she fell into a bottomless pit of despair. It was Michael who saved her. It was through him that she met her future husband, she calls him John. They married within months of their first meeting. "We also wanted to have a child," she said.
Gloria became pregnant and was kept under constant medical supervision. She was terrified that her child, a son, would be born HIV positive. Even after he was born, she remained anxious. But when he was six months old, the doctors were able to confirm that he had been born HIV negative.
Michael says he has 7,000 people on his books seeking a partner. In many ways, his agency works like similar organizations elswhere. Every applicant fills out a form. The fee, though, of 200 Naira (five Euros) is largely a symbolic gesture. Michael has never had trouble with the authorities even though his agency isn't registered as a club or a business.
But Michael has his critics. "Religious fanatics, evangelists," is how he describes them. They accuse him of wanting to spread HIV. "Of course, I don't want to do that," he said. "People with HIV are still people and somebody must look after them."