In his shop in Akwa Ibom, Nigeria, Bassey Ngehaji stands next to Mama Condom and prays while holding up a condom. Photo by Chika Oduah
Bassey Ngehaje does not have a problem using condoms. When that moment approaches, when he's aroused in the company of an alluring woman, Bassey pulls out a condom and puts it on, even if she does not want him to use it.
"I will never do anything without a condom," he says.
Like most in his community in southern Nigeria, Bassey is Christian, belonging to a charismatic sect called the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star, or what many Nigerians refer to as the cult of "Olumba Olumba," named after the now-reportedly deceased, controversial founder Olumba Olumba Obu. Members wear flowing white garments, proclaiming the healing powers of God with dabs of holy water.
For Bassey and many Christians in Nigeria, God is the ultimate doctor, and faith in God is the best preventive health care.
That's why Bassey says his public promotion of condoms is a risk. He says using condoms is "illegal in the church." But, Bassey was not always the condom enthusiast that he is today. It took a trip to Immanuel General Hospital, where he accompanied a friend to patch up a bloody wound to change his perspective. There, for the first time he saw what HIV looked like. He saw people with skeletal frames and patchy skin.
His lifestyle's sexual vibrancy and its seeming carelessness came to mind. He got scared.
That's when he decided that God sometimes needs help.
He points his finger heavenward, saying, "After God's security is the condom."
He says he began a strict adherence to using condoms from August 2013. His transition from a woman-wooing playboy to sexual health advocate took some work. He's got greenish hazel eyes, a slick goatee, a robust physique and the kind of smooth golden-brown skin that some Nigerians would describe as bright or fair. With such looks, it's easy to see how he wins over the ladies.
"I used to have many sexual partners at the same time," the 35-year-old tailor says with a smirk.
In his shop, his employees bend over mechanical sewing machines, stitching together elaborate cotton and wax fabrics in a windowless room. The front and back doors are open yet there's barely a breeze to push the hot, sticky air. This small shop, in the commercial area of Eket in Nigeria's Akwa Ibom State has become a gathering point for young people interested in hearing about the salvation of the condom. They hang around and listen to Bassey tell his story, of his former distaste for the condom.
"Condoms did not give me what I really wanted because I like to get the real feeling, flesh to flesh," he says.
This popular opinion is partly why consistent condom usage is still relatively low in Nigeria, where HIV affects an estimated 3.5 million people. As I wrote for Al Jazeera, "The National Agency for the Control of AIDS says Nigeria has the world's second-largest number of people living with the virus after South Africa" and "Akwa Ibom... has the second-highest HIV prevalence rate in the country. A survey on sexual and reproductive attitudes conducted by ENR's Akwa Ibom team found that practices such as wife sharing and avoidance of condom use have led to the high rate of infection."
Bassey met a woman simply known as "Mama Condom," a local facilitator working with the Enhancing Nigeria's Response to HIV and AIDS program (ENR). The six-year program was funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) with a sizeable contribution of one hundred million pounds.
"There was a lot of skepticism. It's a huge amount of money with a lot of expected deliverables," says Olanipekun Oluwasola, who helps to monitor and evaluate ENR's activities. "In the past five years we have proved that we have been able to manage such money -- not just manage but to make a huge difference on ground."
Through its eight partner organizations including, the BBC World Service Trust, ActionAid and the Society for Family Health, ENR has implemented HIV prevention strategies in seven focal states in Nigeria: Benue, Cross River, Enugu, Kaduna, Lagos, Nasarawa and Ogun.
"If you don't know about yourself, you will not know what to protect," she says. She says many people use condoms incorrectly, or they're in such a hurry to get the sexual action on that they tear the condom when they open the packet.
Her guidance for Bassey has been so transformative, that Bassey is now a face for condom advocacy in Eket. He used the melody of a popular Nigerian Christian song and composed a catchy jingle in the local language of Eket.
The lyrics loosely translate as:
Condom has done a good thing in my life
Has done us much because
We do not have HIV again
With you we don't have AIDS
With you we can do family planning
Condom has done us much
Now, Bassey wants to go bigger, branding himself Mr. Condom. He's looking for grants so he can start a grassroots group that will focus on sexual health and of course, distribute more condoms.
However, condom usage is a sensitive topic in some communities in Nigeria.
23-year-old Saleh Kabirat is an ENR-trained point person in his village of Yanshyi in the northern state of Kaduna. In his role, he reaches out to sexually active males, advising them to stay with one partner and to use condoms.
"Boys here say it's better not to use a condom," he says. Reportedly, about 28 people are infected with HIV in his community of an estimated 6,470 residents.
With the setting of the sun's glow stretching across the capital city of Abuja, prostitutes come out to pose languidly along busy streets and wait for customers to pull up in their cars. One of them, to be called Ada, said she does not always use condoms because men sometimes pay double for "flesh to flesh" contact. When a customer makes such a request, Ada takes out her Bible from her purse, places it on the pillow, takes off her clothes and renders her service.
"I feel protected with my Bible," she says.
In Kwara State, where Hajiya Limoto Goroso Giwa runs the International Women Communication Center talking about condoms is somewhat of a taboo.
"This is a predominantly Muslim society, though we have Christians, and polygamy is the norm in this culture," says Giwa. "If a woman asks her husband to begin using condoms, he will suspect her of being a prostitute and can become angry. So here, it is difficult to talk about condoms. That's why I encourage the women to use female condoms so they can be in control of their own health."
Her diverse team of young and elderly women is making commendable progress from its base in Ilorin. Many of the beneficiaries, some of whom were homeless after being thrown out by their husband upon discovery of having HIV or a sexually transmitted infection, are now upstanding, respectable community advocates. Some of them have learned basic nursing and administer health care, while others have learned how to use computers or hairstyling or sewing.
But even among these socially and economically empowered women, condom usage is tricky.
One married middle-aged woman (who asks for her name not to be used) admits that sexual protection is more of a luxury. She and other woman agree that praying for Allah's protection is the only thing to do in instances when a man flat-out refuses to use a condom.
The woman is a small-scale retailer, selling fish in local markets. In the early morning, she gets her supply from a fisherman who she says sometimes demands her to have sex with him before he will sell her the fish. At those times, protecting her health becomes secondary.
With her eyes cast toward the floor she asks, "What can I do? I need the fish."