When Dorinda Henry talks about the AIDS Quilt – the 22-year project that has so far memorialized the names of 88,000 people who have died from AIDS – she cannot help but cry.
She is not alone, of course. But Henry, the curator and chaplain of the Atlanta-based NAMES Project Foundation/AIDS Memorial Quilt, is feeling particularly overcome right now: She has just hung five panels of the quilt at the HIV/AIDS Implementers’ Meeting, the first time the quilt has been displayed in Africa.
The reason it has never been in the epicenter of the AIDS pandemic? “No one ever requested it, until these people did.’’
Ray Castillo, who is head of public affairs at the US Embassy in Namibia, had the idea. Two embassy staff people – first Linda Millington and now Rouchelle Buckingham – worked with the foundation to make it happen.
The AIDS Quilt has largely been a reflection of the history of the epidemic in America, but Henry said her foundation welcomes quilts from any country; so far, it has panels from 28 nations.
At the display here, three of the five panels are from Africa – two from South Africa and one from Uganda. The other panels represent African Americans and a smattering of quilts from countries around the world.
“These are people’s lives,’’ Henry said of the quilts, which measure three by six feet each, while the panels are 12-by-12 feet. “Family members have put favorite shirts on the quilts, wedding rings, baby shoes, hair, war medals. It’s not just a quilt.’’
She said it was long overdue that the quilt came to Africa. “We all know the numbers of people who have died here. But we don’t focus enough on the individuals. These are people. These are not numbers. The world is diminished because of the loss of these people. In Africa, the disease has devastated an entire continent. It’s not just a million here, a million there. It’s people, and on these quilts you don’t get past a smiling face, or a baby, or a wife saying goodbye to her husband, or a husband saying goodbye to his wife. You can’t ignore that.’’
With that, she dissolved into tears.
From the South African quilt: “We miss you dear son,’’ wrote a father and mother to L. Nkosi, born March 2, 1974, died July 4, 1999.
From Uganda’s: 62 unadorned names who belonged to the renowned TASO organization, which has cared for tens of thousands. Among them on the quilt: Bwairisa Safina, Naluwende Agili, Namisi Chris, Munaba Jane, and Nabusubu Margaret.
For Castillo, who had requested the quilt, the experience of the AIDS quilt is important professionally – and personally.
“This is the sort of thing in public diplomacy we like to do – cultural exchanges that allow people here to connect to people in America,’’ he said. “To me, this quilt is a tremendously powerful symbol of hope and inspiration. I was once in a theater group on Capitol Hill, and the choreographer passed with AIDS. One of the high school women created a panel for him, and I saw it in the Mall.’’
The choreographer was Robert Joyce.
The quilt, hung in the Safari Conference Center, will also be open to the public in Namibia from 7-9 p.m. Friday.