Love Life is a Zikoko weekly series about love, relationships, situationships, entanglements and everything in between.

What’s your earliest memory of each other?

Ben: We met at work in 2012. I immediately liked her the first time I saw her at the office reception, but when I asked her out, she insisted she didn’t date colleagues. As soon as she left the job the next year, I called her and asked her out again. 

She said no straight up.

Debby: I wasn’t dating at the time. I was 23. I kept to myself a lot, focusing on my work and career. 

I’d also recently found out I was HIV positive, so I didn’t know how to go about having that conversation with potential boyfriends. I just kept off.

Wow. How did you convince her to give you a chance, Ben?

Ben: I just kept calling her over some months, and we became friends.

Debby: We talked about old office gist until that faded when most of the people I knew had left. Then he’d call to check on me once in a while.

Ben: She refused to let me in, so I tried to date other people. I was with another girl for about four months. It didn’t work out. Sometime after that break-up, I saw a video she posted with her friends on Facebook. They were at a birthday party. I swear I watched the short video of her laughing and dancing like 30 times. I don’t even know what I was looking for. 


Ben: Funny.

Finally, I called her the next day. I planned out exactly how I’d get her to meet me. At this point, I’d noticed she only wanted to talk about work-related things, so I invited her to a career development fair a popular company was hosting at the Federal Palace Hotel.

Debby: I actually told him I wasn’t going but changed my mind last minute. I was just bored on the day of the event.

Ben: We bonded well, so I thought I’d made progress in my quest to date her. But once we went our separate ways that day, she stopped taking my calls.

Why, Debby?

Debby: I knew he liked me and just wasn’t ready for that.

Ben: I sent her a lot of text messages until I realised I was beginning to look like a creep, so I gave her space for about two months. 

One random day, she texted, “Hi”. I remember smiling so wide when I saw the message pop up on my phone. I expected myself to roll my eyes or hiss. She left me on “read” for two months. But there I was.

Debby: I was lonely. Even though I didn’t reply to all those messages, I’d scroll through them on random days, reading them at a go. Sometimes, I’d cry a little because of how sweet his messages were. 

Aww. Do you mind sharing your HIV story?

Debby: When I was younger, I always imagined I’d tell anyone who had to know that I contracted it through an infected needle or negligent hospital. But the few people I’ve told, I’ve told them the truth. 

It was through unprotected sex with a neighbour while I was in uni in 2010. I thought all I needed was Postinor after and I’d be fine. We did it a couple of times before I even found out.

Ben: After weeks of talking and texting, she told me about it. I was just weak and in denial for a while. She told me she was HIV positive and my response was, “Are you sure?” She tried to explain that she’d gotten the diagnosis and had been on medications for over four years, and I was still like, “But did you get a second opinion? Did you do multiple tests in different hospitals?” I feel so ashamed now.

Did these responses rub you the wrong way, Debby?

Debby: They were annoying, but I was also happy his caring voice didn’t change or go cold, or that he didn’t just make an excuse to end the call. Which is what I expected to happen.

Ben: I won’t lie. I slowed down on trying to date her after that. I started thinking and overthinking. How can someone so beautiful and smart get HIV? Then I’d feel guilty for thinking stuff like that. Mehn, I was a mess for a while.

Debby: I fully expected him not to call me ever again. So when he didn’t call for some days, I was sad but fine. 

Then one day, he started texting me “Good morning angel” every morning. He didn’t do more than that for several weeks, but that small thing always made me feel seen.

How did things move to the next level?

Ben: I was confused for a while until I moved on with someone else. We dated for like 11 months.

Debby: I met other people too, but I never even felt comfortable enough to tell them what’s up. Most of them weren’t patient once I wasn’t eager to come hang out with them and all. 

In the meantime, I tried to stay healthy, and my doctor also counselled me that I didn’t have to be single for life because of it. He’d give me these pamphlets to read, at least four every time I visited. I always read them out of curiosity but never really felt I’d apply them.

Ben: After this relationship didn’t work out, I started thinking about her more. While I was dating, I kept up our texts and occasional calls. I always wanted to make sure she was alright, constantly worried that something bad would happen and I’d be the last to hear about it because I wasn’t really in her life. I hadn’t even met any of her friends talk less of family at this point.

One day, I googled “Is it safe to date someone with HIV?” Even as I typed the words in, I felt ashamed. I could imagine her watching me do it and getting offended. I closed the page almost immediately. I called her up some days later and asked if she’d like to meet up for drinks. This was in 2015.

Did you meet up for drinks?

Ben: We did. For the first few hours, we ate and drank and gisted. I told her I’d broken up with my girlfriend. After that, I scaredly told her I still wanted to date her. It’d been so long since we talked about dating. 

Debby: I told him he was crazy. Had he spoken with anyone? No one would let him date me.

Ben: I hadn’t told a soul that she has the virus. Till today, none of my family or friends know. Only her parents know, actually. I’m glad we did it that way to avoid unnecessary drama.

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Has keeping this a secret from them been hard?

Ben: Surprisingly, no. 

My parents told me the day before my wedding that what goes on in my marriage shouldn’t be shared with outsiders anyhow, not even them. I’m taking their advice.

Debby: It’s such a private information. I’m glad it was his idea to keep it from them so I wouldn’t have had to make such a deep request. This really deepened our bond actually. 

It’s also not something that ever comes up, like, “What’s your HIV status?” Once we made the decision not to tell anyone who didn’t already know, e.g., my parents, we just forgot about it.

Ben: Maybe it helps that I’ve never been that close to my parents and siblings. We’re not a close-knit family, and I know they wouldn’t be understanding.

Right. So how did that dating conversation end?

Debby: I didn’t think he understood what he was talking about, so I rudely called a cab and started leaving.

Ben: Before she left, I told her all she had to do was educate me on the risks. I needed to know the risks so I could decide if I could take them. That’s how later that week, she sent a dispatch to me with a whole bunch of pamphlets.

Debby: I sent them to discourage him, so he could stop raising my hopes. But I spoke with my mum about it, and she said it was the best I could’ve done. My mum was my rock during the period right after my diagnosis. She judged and shamed me at first. But I don’t know what happened, after some days, she switched and became more understanding.

Ben: I read the papers and understood that it was 100% possible to have a relationship without me getting the virus or her passing it on to our kids. That’s all I needed to know. I was still scared about dating her, but I had a little hope that it could be something beautiful. 

It wasn’t something I jumped into. I thought about it for days and days, but I didn’t tell anybody. I knew if I did, I’d wake up from my romantic dreams.

When did you finally know you had to dive in?

Ben: March 23, 2016. It was a Wednesday. I was at work, and I saw someone who looked just like her walk past the building. I immediately took out my phone and called her. She wasn’t the one, but she was in such a good mood when she picked up. That’s how we ended up speaking for more than 30 minutes while I was on duty. 

Debby: We spoke about me being on leave and just lying in bed listening to music. I had a trip the next day because a close cousin of mine was getting married. We talked about travelling by road, the latest update on the expressways, everything and nothing really.

Ben: It was during this call I knew I loved her. I wanted to disappear and appear with her in her room on her bed. 

That night, I called her again and said I wanted to be her boyfriend and future husband. I wanted to take care of her forever. Just listening to her gentle voice talking for hours made me weak. I was far gone.

How did she take your proclamation of love?

Debby: I cried and cried and that’s how the call ended. The next day, he was at my house seeing me and my family off.

Ben: When she was gone, we spoke over the phone throughout. I tried to get her to talk to me about what life’s like for her, the medication she takes and all that.

Debby: One thing I loved was that he never once asked me how I contracted it. That made me feel safe and unjudged. 

When I returned home, we started attending some of my counselling and treatment sessions together.

Ben: You’d be incredibly surprised by the number of Nigerians who have this virus. It’s way more common than you think. God help those who are still having unprotected sex in this day and age.

Right? But did it ever get hard, dating as a mixed-status couple?

Debby: I noticed we weren’t as free with simple things like hugging and kissing as we probably would’ve been if I didn’t have HIV — mostly my fault. I didn’t want to endanger him in any way, even though I knew hugging wouldn’t hurt. I guess I was still healing from my last intimate relationship causing the problem in the first place.

Ben: Our first year together was all about talking and spending quality time with each other. Dates, remembering each other on special days and lots of gifting. It took that long for us to trust each other enough to kiss. But it honestly didn’t feel like it.

What are some precautions you’ve had to take to stay safe?

Ben: First and foremost, condoms are a must. I also got on PrEP sometime in 2018. That’s pretty much it. She takes her own daily drugs, so we’re good. The only thing is these drugs aren’t cheap AT ALL, especially with the crazy inflation, but God is helping us.

Debby: We have to plan the costs as we’re taking money aside for rent. That’s how we manage it.

Anyway, it was a long journey to unlearning all the fears in our heads. I wasn’t willing to try anything too out of the box when it came to sex because my greatest fear was always that I’d infect him. I wanted to avoid that at all costs. That affected our sex life, especially after we got married.

Ben: She’s undetectable now, so we’re very relaxed these days. Oral sex is on the table. But we’ve decided to stick to condoms.

What was the journey to getting married like?

Ben: Remember that I’d already technically proposed when I asked her to be my girlfriend? So even though she tried to joke about it that time, we always had conversations with our eventual marriage as the bottom line. 

Debby: It happened so naturally. It really did feel like our dating period was just our pre-wedding period. I think we were just trying to be settled on how the virus would affect our lives together and how well we could afford, financially, to be married. 

So it was three years of getting comfortable with each other, understanding my condition and working hard at our jobs.

Ben: October 2019, I bought a ring and proposed. We had our wedding right before the pandemic, in January 2020.

Were there new struggles that came with marriage?

Debby: It was tough wanting to make out all the time during the lockdown while staying safe. That was stressful but in a funny and cute way.

Ben: The lockdown actually helped us ease up at first. Then we let the fear get into our heads again soon after. In this stage of our marriage, we made up for our loss of intimacy with a lot of conversation and constant cuddling. For a long time, we’d just skip foreplay and go right to sex.

Debby: After we had our baby in 2022, our sex life got much better.

In what ways?

Debby: For one thing, I was much hornier, which came as a shock to both of us.

Ben: Yeah. And something about increasing our family made us feel more connected, I think.

Debby: I get what you mean. Like emotionally. Also, we’ve spent so much time together just taking care of Baby G that we feel like such a team. I’m not sure how that translates into a deeper connection in bed, but it so does. 

Maybe fellow new parents would understand.

What was conceiving like with compulsory condoms, though?

Ben: It’s not cute at all, but we use a syringe.

Debby: It’s called insemination

When we realised we wanted to start making a family but we’d not talked much about how that would happen, we went to my doctor, and he guided us through insemination during my ovulations. We started doing it ourselves at home after the first two months — you just ejaculate into a big needle-less syringe then inject it into the vagina. 

It took a couple of tries before I conceived, but it was an exciting time.

Ben: Now, because she has an undetectable viral load, we might not need to do that anymore. We’re still talking about it sha.

Neat. What was your first major fight about?

Debby: Hmm. That was during our eternal talking period. 

I think he said I was just being stubborn. It was over the phone. I was so upset he tried to make me sound frivolous because I didn’t want to give him a chance for no reason. Meanwhile, I was dying in silence trying to deal with this new, permanent, negative development in my life. I screamed at him, cut the call and ignored him for about a week. I don’t think you could block people at that time.

Ben: That reaction makes so much sense now. I didn’t know she was going through things. I was young. 

After she screamed and cut the call, I was like, “This girl is so rude and spoilt.” I feel so ashamed now. I was so sure I wouldn’t talk to her again. But some days later, I was still thinking about her. I was curious why she was so angry because of one offhand statement. She didn’t seem like someone who’d have a temper.

Debby: He started texting me after like two days, and I was like, “Can’t this one just give up?” He was so stressful, honestly. 

But I realise now that he’s just an earnest person who knows what he wants and goes after it. He’s like that with everything in his life, and he’s taught me to be like that too.

How would you rate your Love Life on a scale of 1 to 10?

Ben: 10. I’m glad I took a chance with us even though it seemed so impossible at the time.

Debby: 10. I’m glad I opened my heart to you. It’s been so many ups and downs, but you’ve been such a good partner in crime. Thank you so much.

Check back every Thursday by 9 AM for new Love Life stories here. The stories will also be a part of the Ships newsletter, so sign up here.

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