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BENIN: Internet new frontline in AIDS awareness

Photo: Anthony Kaminju/IRIN
Getting the word out
COTONOU, 10 August 2007 (PlusNews) - Dieudonné Sourou never leaves the cybercafé in Cotonou, Benin’s commercial capital, where he comes every week to check his personal emails, without sending what this 25-year-old calls "useful messages" raising HIV awareness.

In this little cybercafe in the northern outskirts of Cotonou, Sourou focuses on typing his note, a process he repeats week after week. A long list of addresses awaits him in the corner of his screen.

"Last week, I sent a message to this list of people about the new report by the World Health Organization on the preventative role of circumcision in the fight against transmission of HIV," he told IRIN/PlusNews.

Like Sourou, several young Beninese have decided, of their own accord, to involve themselves in the fight against the virus.

"It's our way of having an impact, so that the community really becomes aware of the disease," explained Alain Doumin, a student in his final year of high school in Cotonou, who came to the cybercafe with a series of documents on HIV/AIDS.

"We don't have the money for big measures to raise awareness on the public stage. This avenue doesn't require much money and allows us to get involved in the fight," he added, before diving into his work once more.

These youth send the messages to recipients they've never met - friends comprise "at most 10 percent of the recipients", Doumin said - with the goal of reaching as large an audience as possible.

"The impact is far-reaching. We send messages outside of Benin. We gather addresses from listings of the main internet providers without knowing exactly who we're sending to in most cases," Sourou explained.

Real-life experiences at the heart of it

Most of the youth said it was often a personal experience that convinced them to get involved in the fight against HIV and AIDS.

"I started [sending messages] after watching a young man die of AIDS in my neighbourhood," said Gabin Ogbonikan, another youth who said he has sent more than 50 messages in two years. "That really affected me, and I told myself the response to a tragedy cannot be indifference."

Claude Dossa, a young manager of a cybercafe in Porto Novo, the Beninese capital, decided to use his keyboard to influence behaviour when he noticed that many young people of his generation were associating with sex workers, and probably not using condoms.

"I figured naivety and the lack of information constituted the fundamental problem at the sources of this risky behaviour," he said. "Every person, within the framework of his own life and profession, has to try to contribute to fill the gaps on this issue. As a cybercafe manager, this is the best way I can contribute."
''Not everyone is in the position to go and find the information. So we have to do the work in their place''

Saturnin Afolabi, a second-year linguistics student at the Abomey Calavi University in the north of Cotonou said he sends "at least two messages every week about what is at stake in terms of preventing the disease" and tries "to inform people about new strategies emerging at the national or international level".

"Nobody asked us to write these messages. We just became aware of a situation," he said.

UN figures from 2005 show that about 1.8 percent of Benin's population is HIV-positive, a decrease from 2003.

However, "that shouldn't mean the end of mobilisation", said Afolabi, who, like Ogbonikan, has been tested for HIV. "For example, in the big towns, there is considerable work to do, and that's not yet sufficiently understood by the majority of people."

Well-received messages

The recipients of the messages appreciate the initiative and regularly send encouraging responses, Afolabi said.

"Not everyone is in the position to go and find the information. So we have to do the work in their place. Every time I send the messages, even to people I don't know, I receive reactions in my inbox," he said.

"It's very encouraging and it permits us to meaningfully evaluate the impact our work is having. If they respond and encourage the initiative, we've already won half the battle."

These spontaneous initiatives are encouraged by more orthodox advocacy groups.

"I know that some young people are doing excellent work in dispersing information, discretely, without asking for any financial or material support," said Daniel Gbaguidi, a community leader in the fight against AIDS. "Many people who receive the messages in turn forward them to others, which simply reinforces the action. We can't ask for more."

While the internet is still far from being used by the majority of Beninois, its use is on the rise.

Honore Chintan, computer specialist and owner of a cybercafe in a slum neighbourhood of Cotonou, acknowledged there was "work to be done to democratise the internet", but predicted it could become "a useful tool in the fight against AIDS" in Benin.

Theme(s): (IRIN) Care/Treatment - PlusNews, (IRIN) HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), (IRIN) Media - PlusNews, (IRIN) Prevention - PlusNews, (IRIN) Youth - PlusNews


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States. Republication is subject to terms and conditions as set out in the IRIN copyright page.