The president who made people take his bogus HIV cure
The Gambia’s former leader, Yahya Jammeh, who left the country a year ago after two decades in power, has been accused of many crimes. But one of the strangest was forcing thousands of people with HIV to undergo treatment with a concoction of herbs he had invented himself. An unknown number died, reports Colin Freeman.
As the first person in The Gambia to publicly declare himself HIV-positive, Lamin Ceesay thought he was doing the right thing. It was back in 2000, when many people were still ignorant about HIV, and when HIV-positive people had to cope with stigma and prejudice on top of everything else.
On World Aids Day that year, Ceesay plucked up the courage to go public and took part in a street march put on by an HIV charity. It earned him the respect of health campaigners worldwide. But a few years later it also brought him to the attention of Gambia’s president, Yahya Jammeh.
In early 2007, Jammeh declared that he’d invented his own miracle cure for the virus using a mixture of herbal medicine and spiritual healing techniques. Even more bizarrely, he said the cure only worked on Thursdays and Mondays.
Not surprisingly, this was denounced as quackery of the most dangerous sort by health chiefs around the world.
But in The Gambia itself, telling the president that he was talking nonsense could land you in prison.
So when an invitation arrived at Ceesay’s HIV charity, asking for 10 volunteers to be the first batch of guinea pigs for the president’s six-month treatment programme, he decided it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“I thought about just sending other people on the programme, but I feared if I didn’t go myself, it might get me into trouble,” he told me. “I also thought, ‘Why not? It can’t do any harm.'”
That was where Ceesay was wrong. It was only when he arrived at the president’s makeshift clinic at State House that the ground rules of the programme were explained. No smoking, or drinking tea or coffee. No sex. And crucially, no taking of mainstream medicine – including the anti-retroviral drugs given to him by his regular doctors.