‘Narratives of HIV’ raises awareness at Carolina

Apr 23, 2004

Before she falls asleep each night, my 2-year-old daughter, Anna, asks me to tell her a story. Some nights I tell her about my childhood in Idaho, or swimming with dolphins in New Zealand, or hiking in Hawaii. Other nights we talk about the boys and girls I taught when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Vanuatu.

In Vanuatu, when friends talk, they “storian.” In Hawaii, it’s called “talking story.” In Vancouver a few years ago, I noticed a poster for that city’s annual storytelling festival, and I’ve been craving stories ever since.

Last spring, I started to really listen to the HIV story. HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, causes the deadly disease AIDS. The United Nations estimates that there are 40 million people infected with HIV, and 5 million more become infected each year.

Here in North Carolina, researchers in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine have identified an outbreak of HIV among college students at more than 30 campuses across the state. Nearly 25 years since AIDS became a national topic, the message of HIV prevention is getting lost somewhere.

The more I heard about HIV, the more I wanted to encourage others to listen. And so I organized “Narratives of HIV,“ a series of events in the Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication and Public Health to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS. I heard occasional doubts ”Don’t students already know enough about AIDS?” but a committee of like-minded students and faculty members soon joined me to build support and find money to bring the HIV story to campus.

When I wrote to them by e-mail, documentary filmmaker Robert Bilheimer and Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal reporter Mark Schoofs agreed to come to Chapel Hill.

Bilheimer produced the emotional documentary A Closer Walk about AIDS around the world. We screened that film in the Carolina Union auditorium, where roughly 200 people watched. Bilheimer called on college students to be new revolutionaries demanding a stop to AIDS.

“We want to think of A Closer Walk as not just a film but a movement,” Bilheimer said.

Schoofs won his Pulitzer for his international reporting of AIDS in Africa, a series of stories he wrote for the Village Voice. He spent a full day in Carroll Hall, telling students that narrative reporting means “trying to figure out the existential reality of the daily life of people.”

While in Nigeria to report about AIDS, Schoofs came down with malaria and sweated through his infection in a sweltering convent room. He said that made him realize the torture of illness in a place with sporadic power and fuel shortages in one of the largest oil-producing countries.

“AIDS is a fascinating story,“ he said. “It’s a scientific story, an economic story, a political story and a social story.” He urged reporting at the grassroots level, where he found the stories of how HIV infects Nigerian street-gang youth and rural Zimbabwean villagers.

UNC-Chapel Hill infectious disease expert Myron Cohen believes that HIV is a 200-year epidemic.

“Your grandkids will still be talking about this,” he said. That means Anna’s children, just before they fall asleep, may hear stories of how grandpa Anton was an AIDS journalist. I wish there were another story for them to hear.

— Carolina Communicator, Spring 2004

Anton Zuiker

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