Samuel Koutepo had been sick for years when HIV counseling and testing came to his village in Côte d'Ivoire. A local committee was promoting it, and Samuel was one of the first to accept.
For months, he spoke of this to no one in the village except Malobe Soumahoro, a volunteer community counselor, who offered Samuel support and helped him to seek care.
Malobe is part of an initiative by the National Agency for Rural Development (ANADER) that brings HIV prevention, mobile testing, and care services to rural areas of Côte d'Ivoire with support from the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
"I was living under the weight of this secret, in anguish," Samuel said. "I was lonely."
When he finally told his family and friends that he was HIV-positive, they began avoiding him.
"I'd become the damned of the family," Samuel recalls. "I had lost all value in their eyes. For them, I was at the edge of the grave. I lost my taste for life. At times I thought about suicide."
But Malobe continued to support Samuel.
Working through village action committees and its own rural development agents in 146 villages in five regions of Côte d'Ivoire, last year, ANADER reached more than 230,000 people with HIV prevention activities, tested more than 29,000 people for HIV, and provided care and support for more than 3,000 people with HIV and more than 10,000 orphans and vulnerable children.
Along with delivering services, ANADER and the village committees are working to break down the stigma experienced by Samuel.
When Malobe started a support group for people living with HIV/AIDS in Grand-Zattry, Samuel initially refused to participate, fearing exposure.
"I didn't know there was anyone else like me in the village," he said. "People with HIV hide for fear of having fingers pointed at them as they pass."
After weeks of explanation and encouragement from Malobe, Samuel agreed to visit other people living with HIV/AIDS.
In March 2009, Samuel and four others met at Malobe's house to begin a support group, one of the 104 rural support groups initiated by ANADER. Along with meeting, these groups help distribute care, food, and school kits to people living with HIV/AIDS and orphans and vulnerable children. Some groups have also have started income-generating activities.
As the elected president of his group, Samuel now works to help members in need and is looking forward to beginning an income-generating activity in his village.
"We share in the group, and we help each other," he said. "All of us have regained the joy of living. We're no longer afraid of what others might say about us. We're united, and we're getting stronger every day."
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