When Michael tested positive with HIV in August 2017, he was confused. He didn’t think he could get the virus, since he always used protection. He found out after falling ill and going to the hospital, where he underwent a series of tests.
“I was HIV positive and couldn’t believe it,” Michael told TheBody. (Michael is not his real name.) “I was so confused that I thought I was the only person in the world, alone and looking for ways to not blame myself for my misfortune.”
Michael’s desperation to find his way through his diagnosis didn’t waver. He had become so religious he believed God was the only answer to his problem. A few months since discovering his status, the now 25-year-old student lives in Ibadan, Nigeria, and often hears gossip about a prayer house adept in curing sickness, particularly HIV. Without hesitation, Michael thought the answer to his problem would be answered, and he quickly ventured to the Power of Resurrection Assembly.
When he arrived, the pastor asked him about his status. Michael told him not only that he had HIV, but that he was gay.
“He told me that HIV wasn’t my potion, that the blood of children of God can never be contaminated or infected,” Michael said. “On hearing I had gotten the virus from a man, he screamed, ‘God forbid!’ and spat on the floor. He told me he was not just going to cure me from HIV but also to cure me from homosexuality.”
The pastor subjected Michael to a seven-day dry fast and prayer with only water. He also included a deliverance session nightly. The pastor told him he was possessed by a marine spirit who sleeps with men and that’s why he needed deliverance. Michael still didn’t hesitate—he felt that as long as he was cured of HIV, he could go with anything.
Michael fasted for two days, drinking water and foregoing his medication, as his pastor told him to. He was also coming for the deliverance every night, which lasted from 10 p.m. till 4 a.m. the following day. Michael said that during the deliverance, the pastor would rub oil all over his body and start massaging him while saying prayers and speaking in tongues.
“This would last for some hours before we’d say individual prayers and sleep off,” Michael said. By the third day, Michael was too ill to continue the fasting. He ate something and took his antiretroviral medication before sleeping. He stopped the fasting, and he didn’t return to the church again.
“I fell into depression for a long time, and I still regret doing all that when I try to look at my past. I hated myself so much,” he said.
Michael’s journey reflects the shame-filled HIV climate in Nigeria. So detrimental is it to a person’s reputation, they will pursue any means possible to get cured. With desperate means introducing more damages, a lot of people—particularly prayer houses—began using people’s desperation to make a living in Nigeria.
Nigeria consists of 3% of the world’s population, with over 200 million citizens. According to the Nigeria HIV/AIDS Indicator and Impact Survey, 3.1 million persons were living with the virus in 2017, making it the country with the second highest number of HIV cases. In the same year, there were over 210,000 new cases and 150,000 deaths.
However, by 2019, the number of people living with the virus had dropped to 1.9 million. Women were the most affected, counting to 1 million individuals. Children with the virus counted to be 150,000. The massive reduction in cases was possible because of the launching of the Revised National HIV and AIDS Strategic Framework 2019-2021 to guide the country’s future response to HIV in the country.
Though the Nigerian government didn’t have the full funding at first, they were able to sponsor counselling to those whose partner had tested positive for the virus.
In Nigeria, HIV testing has become a steady routine, thanks to the government and most nonprofits, who are making sure there are efficient and sufficient testing kits for people. On testing, people are given cartons of condoms for safe sex as well as therapy on safe sex. This has reduced the rate of the viral transmission.
But despite the headway being made, many people are still being diagnosed, like 29-year-old Nnenna, who diagnosed with HIV in 2016.
“It was the worst moment of my life because I thought it would change me forever,” she told TheBody. “I wanted things to go back to how it was.” When Nnenna was diagnosed, she was in law school. She says she didn’t have a support system at the time, due to stigma.
“I was looking for a possible solution to get the virus from my blood. My friend suggested we meet her church’s spiritual director, that he could help since he had a reputation of curing people,” she said.
Nnenna booked an appointment with the pastor at Christ Healing Ministry. “When I entered his office, there was something off; I didn’t understand it. I don’t know if you believe this, but I do have a disconnection when something bad is about to happen—I feel weak and struggling, it’s just like my spirit is battling with something,” Nnenna said.
However, the pastor offered her a seat, said a little prayer with her, and requested her problems. “I told him my problems and all I have been through with it. He told me not to worry, that I had a minor issue and all I needed to do was to tip him N50,000 ($132). It wasn’t a problem to me since I had the money for it.”
The pastor instructed Nnenna to embark on three days of fasting, and on the third day he would cleanse her. She went home satisfied, did the fasting, and ate once a day as instructed by the pastor. On the last day, she returned to the church for the cleansing as said.
The pastor asked her to change into a white gown he provided. During the cleansing process, he poured three bottles of gova oil, an oil used in some Nigerian churches that some people believe has healing properties, and began to run his hands all over her body, including her nipples, and pretended to speak in tongues. He was assaulting her.
“I stood up politely, asking him if there was any other way other than touching my body. He told me if he didn’t continue I would still have the virus,” she said. Nnenna let the ritual continue, hopeful she could be cured. “When he finished, he told me to go back to the hospital to retest.”
Nnenna took the test, but nothing had changed. She returned to the pastor in quest for her money, but she was thrown out. “After seeing my test, I felt like crying. I didn’t have a choice than to confront the man for my money. I went back the same day, but the man had me thrown. It was my worst moment, and I still regret every bit of it. I even broke up with my friend, because to me, she was a scammer too,” Nnenna said.
There are other stories like this, as well. One 25-year-old Nigerian named Mr. T sought a cure from a faith leader in 2013. He was also told to fast, say 21 midnight prayers, and do seven Sundays of deliverance, meaning he would attend church service. Mr. T did the fasting and prayer as well as the deliverance, but nothing changed; he was still positive. When I asked Mr. T his reaction when he discovered nothing changed, he said, “Nothing special, ’cause I knew it would be the same. I was just trying my luck, maybe something could change.”
Since the encounter, Mr. T feels less tied to religion.
Donald’s story is much different from the others. The 24 year old, who is currently a student at the Federal University of Technology, recapped his moment of getting the virus and feeling so frustrated about it. He tested positive in 2019 and felt so much self-hate, he sought out a religious cure through a religious community at his school. Walking into the fellowship that day, Donald sat at the back seat, whispering prayers. “I kept praying silently that the [test result would] be reversed,” he said. “I even made a vow that I was going to serve him all of my days should he miraculously change my situation.”
Amid Donald’s silent prayer, the minister interrupted, asking the congregation to petition God for what they needed. Donald joined the small crowd. The minister, however, started moving quickly, touching people’s heads and ministering prayers. “When he touched my head, I was scared—still didn’t know why,” Donald said.
When he went to retest, his status was still the same. He had only one option, and that was to live with it. Though Donald feels a load of regret, he is not invested in turning back time. “Well, to some extent I hated the fact that I had to be silly—but as time went on, I adjusted, forgave myself, and developed a motto,” he said.
Despite the severity of conning people in Nigeria who have HIV, there is no organization working to make the situation better or call out the men who are conning. When I contacted and asked Xeenarh Mohammed, a lawyer and activist who serves as the executive director of The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERS), she was quick to tell me how terrible the situation is and how most organizations don’t necessarily see the stories because people don’t always make complaints about it.
Despite people who are peddling false HIV cures continuing to lure in unsuspecting victims, the Nigerian judicial system is often harsh when it comes to fraud and conning people. According to Criminal Code Section 419 of the Nigerian Constitution, “Any person who by any false pretence, and with intent to defraud, obtains from any other person anything capable of being stolen, or induces any other person to deliver to any person anything capable of being stolen, is guilty of a felony, and is liable to imprisonment for three years.”
The only problem hindering people who get conned from seeking protection from the law is resources. In Nigeria, before a case is pursued, money always gets involved, often a prohibitive amount of money. So, instead of going to the law for help, people either choose to forget the scamming prayer houses or choose threats in pursuit of their money, either of which suits them better.