By Mary Mam Degen Fye
Fatou Jatta still remembers the shame and humiliation she felt more than 13 years ago, lying naked on a stretcher as Yahya Jammeh rubbed his herbal “treatment” all over her body, including her genitals.
She was one of the first HIV-positive people to have the dubious honour of receiving Jammeh’s herbal concoction that he had claimed could cure Aids. And she is lucky to have survived the treatment to tell the tale.
Her nightmare started shortly after January 2007, when then Gambian President Jammeh announced that God had given him the mandate to create a cure for HIV/Aids from seven herbs. He set up the Presidential Alternative Treatment Programme (PATP) to administer his “cure”, although he had no medical training, knowledge, or experience.
Before this upheaval in her life, Fatou had learned to cope with her condition since she tested positive for HIV in 1995. She had even joined Santa Yalla group, through which persons living with HIV/Aids supported one another and raised awareness about the disease.
Testifying before the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) on July 15, 2020, Fatou recalled that members of her group were flattered when they were invited, twice, to visit the president at the State House. They had no idea that they had been picked to be guinea pigs for Jammeh’s unscientific experiment. It appears that to prove his declaration of a cure, the president had decided to use HIV/Aids support groups to recruit candidates for his treatment
“When we got to the State House, Jammeh welcomed us. At that time there were only two groups for people living with HIV/Aids – Santa Yalla and Nanya Kiling. He said he had heard about us and congratulated us for doing a good job, sensitising the public. He promised to assist us in our mission. He said a lot of things that I cannot remember, but I recall that as we were leaving, he asked us to pose for a group photo.”
The second visit was soon followed by a donation of a carton of large bottles filled with a herbal concoction. The group’s coordinator was instructed to tell the members that the “medicine” had been supplied by a person who said he could cure HIV/Aids. He was instructed not to name the benefactor.
The coordinator called Fatou on January 18, 2007, to tell her that the vice president’s office had asked for the names of the members of Santa Yallah, as Yahya Jammeh needed them to start his treatment programme.
Fatou started getting concerned when she arrived at the treatment facility. The place was fenced off and guarded by soldiers. The patients were ordered to stop drinking tea and coffee, and they were to stop taking any conventional medicine, especially their anti-retroviral drugs. They were not allowed visitors and could not leave without permission. They were required to remain at the facility for six months.
This was not what Fatou had expected. She had not come prepared to stay. She thought she would collect the drugs and go back home. That is why she came with her baby.
Then the treatment started. Fatou was asked to strip naked and was only allowed to cover herself with a towel. Then President Jammeh arrived and started rubbing her body with “medicine”. She said her consent was not sought for any of the things that were done to her. Afterwards, she was told to drink a concoction. She had an adverse reaction almost immediately, losing consciousness while still lying on the stretcher. When she came to, she heard one of the doctors ask the president, “Sir, can we take her to hospital?” He responded, “No, she will wake up.”
The treatment sessions were recorded and some of them were shown on national television. Patients’ consent was not sought. They had to endure public exposure and humiliation, bearing in mind the stigmatisation that surrounds HIV/Aids in The Gambia. The patients who tried to protect their privacy were tricked. Some women who tried to cover their faces with their veils when the camera was approaching were lied to that they would not appear on TV, that the video was only for reference purposes for the president. Fatou was mortified as she recounted that her sessions in the treatment room, only covered with a towel, were recorded without her consent.
Fatou remembered that awful moment when she realised that she had been tricked into staying at the treatment facility with her infant, leaving her other children with no one to look after them.
At the end of the mandatory six months, she was left counting the cost of the “treatment”. She had lost her job, her health had deteriorated, and her children had suffered.
“What happened in 2007 shall never leave the history books of The Gambia. You take women, because the majority of the people taking the treatment were women. No one refused to be treated. But if you are treating me, respect me in the process as well. I say this because when Yahya Jammeh was treating us, they used to undress us. The whole world watching us, everywhere in the world people have seen your body. I am not an ustass (Quranic teacher), but an Imam is here. A woman’s endowment is something that should be respected, but we were exposed. I can even say that we were sexually harassed, because you ask a woman to undress, lie down, and you touch all parts of her body. Even if you touch the breast of a woman, that is harassment; what about her whole body? We were accused of being witches and given concoctions that were making us lose our mental stability. That added to the HIV that we were living with.”
It is not known how many people enrolled in PATP. All the clinic’s records were kept secret, so it is not known how many people died. Tasmir Mbowe, the programme’s director general, announced in 2016 that 9,000 people had been treated for various illness. The programme had by then evolved and claimed to also treat other diseases, including cancer and asthma. However, testifying before the TRRC, Mbowe claimed that only 311 HIV-positive people had enrolled during the 10 years the programme was in operation.
The Presidential Alternative Treatment Programme had an official web site offering information and promoting its activities. It published the names, faces, CD4 counts, and viral loads of patients. From Fatou’s testimony, it is obvious that their consent was not sought.