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First African World AIDS Day takes place Saturday
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Siona Nchotu learned she had AIDS three years after moving from Africa to Minnesota. She worked as a midwife in her native Cameroon and believes that's how she contracted the disease. Since her diagnosis, Nchotu has spoken to many African groups about AIDS prevention. (MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
On Saturday, hundreds of African immigrants will converge on a Minneapolis community center for the state's first ever African World AIDS Day. It's part of an ongoing effort to educate the African-born community about HIV and AIDS. It's a population that's been especially hard hit by the disease.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Siona Nchotu's finishes off the last of her late morning snack, settles back in her chair, and begins to tell her story. The mother of six grew up in Cameroon, where she worked in the medical field. In 2002, three years after moving to Minnesota, she learned she had full blown AIDS.

"You know back in Africa where I come from I worked as a midwife and even when they trained us we never used gloves," says Nchotu. "You know what a midwife's job entails."

Nchotu says they regularly re-used needles as part of their medical practice. She guesses that's how she contracted AIDS, but she says there's no way to know for sure.

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Image Tracy Sides

Since her diagnosis Nchotu's hit the speaking circuit. She regularly talks to African groups and even formed her own group geared towards spreading the message of prevention. But Nchotu says AIDS bears a heavy stigma in African circles and that's made education efforts challenging. She says she tries to encourage people to get tested.

"In Minnesota the resources are good, the facilities are there. What's the problem?" asks Nchotu. "If it's insurance, there are places you can walk in free and be tested. You are not alone in Minnesota. You are no longer in Africa where you will be abandoned."

Nchotu's believed to be the first in the local African community to come out publicly and acknowledge that she has AIDS. Since then a handful of others have also spoken up.

Tracy Sides says that's a sign of progress. Sides is an epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health. She studies AIDS and its prevalence among different populations. She says once the state began to separate HIV and AIDS data on African born blacks from African Americans, the disparity was immediately clear.

"The cultural and social situations that cause HIV to be a problem in Africa, those same factors are brought with people to the U.S," says Sides. "Because immigration, particularly among Africans is still fairly recent, those factors are still very much present and need to be addressed."

In response the health department hired Elizabeth Namarra. She's originally from Ethiopia. It's her job to work as a liaison between African community groups and the health department, supplying educational materials and trying to break down some of the cultural barriers. Now two years into her job, Namarra says it's hard to over state the stigma that was associated with AIDS.

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Image Elizabeth Namarra

"If you say a meeting is for providing HIV information or education no one would come two or three years ago because they believed if they go there other people might think that they have the disease," says Namarra.

That's one of the reasons she considers African World AIDS day such an accomplishment. Many community leaders have agreed to participate -- something that would have been unheard of in the past. Namarra expects elected officials and many medical experts to attend. The day also promises plenty of dance, traditional food, and even a play. Namarra says best of all she expects really good attendance.

"Now a lot of people are hearing about HIV and how it is transmitted. It's OK to live with someone who had HIV or AIDS. It doesn't jump from one person to another. It's only what you that puts you at risk its not who you are," Namarra explains.

African World AIDS Day will be held at the Brian Coyle Community Center in Minneapolis. Festivities are planned throughout the day including a special presentation by Siona Nchotu.

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