When Nkosi Johnson stood before the crowd of AIDS activists at the 2000 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, he was a very sick little boy. His eleven-year-old body had fought valiantly against the virus unwittingly transmitted to him at birth by a mother mired in poverty and powerlessness. But the virus was winning. “I hate having AIDS” he told the crowd. But, he went on: “We are all the same. We are not different from one another. . . . and we have needs just like everybody else. Don’t be afraid of us.”
Jim Wooten, an award-winning senior correspondent for ABC News, has written a tender and compelling book which intertwines the story of Nkosi Johnson’s battle with AIDS and the discrimination he experienced because of his disease with the bigger story of the history of South Africa in the post-apartheid era and the blight of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
As a news journalist, Wooten admits to covering the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa with an attitude of detachment – and a bit of despair. But after being assigned to do a story about Nkosi, he found his efforts to remain “emotionally uninvolved” were failing. He also found, after a meeting with the President of Uganda where comprehensive efforts to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS had significantly reduced the infection rate, hope for the future. That hope was personified by Nkosi Johnson and his white South African adoptive mother Gail.
Nkosi’s biological mother Daphne made the difficult choice that far too many mothers in sub-Saharan Africa make every day: to leave her child in the care of strangers where she hoped he would receive the medical care and nutritious food that she was unable to provide. Gail Johnson, who had helped to establish and run a hospice for AIDS patients, became Nkosi’s caretaker and his champion. She forced the government to allow him to attend school, obtained free medical care for him from expert physicians, and perhaps most importantly, treated him with love and laughter and respect. And she does so without presuming to be the “white savior” – she acknowledges her privilege and uses it to make the lives of many orphan children better.
Wooten is a sensitive narrator. He doesn’t let his voice or his presence interfere with the telling of the real story: of AIDS, of South Africa, and of a sick little boy who reminded us that despite the differences in our skin color, our socio-economic status, our well-being – we are all the same. This is a alesson that seems to be missing from some of our current political rhetoric. I imagine Nkosi -who died in 2001 – would be disappointed in the divisiveness and ‘othering’ that continues – though not as specifically regarding those with HIV/AIDS, but all too often for people who looked like he did.