We Are All the Same: The Life and Death of Nkosi Johnson

Read the first chapter of the extraordinary story of the little South African boy whose bravery and fierce determination to make a difference despite being born with AIDS has made him the human symbol of the world's fight against the disease, told by the veteran American journalist whose life he changed.
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Updated on: October 19, 2004
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Four generations later the boy was born, in a land that no longer existed, in a village with no name. It is still there, somewhere out in the bush of what was once Zululand, difficult to find, easy to miss. More a squatters' camp than a village, it nevertheless offers a shabby air of permanence, with at least a hundred or so Zulus residing in corrugated tin shacks and cardboard shanties, all either on their way to someplace else or with no other place to go.

The land around it bristles with monuments marking its violent past, but in the village itself there is not the slightest whiff of history. No one can say when it was settled. No one seems to know who arrived first or if any of the original families remain. It simply sits there in undistinguished anonymity on a low rise beneath a few scraggly trees, several miles from the nearest highway, almost invisible from the sun-baked ruts of a nearby secondary road. It is so wretched a place that if one day it were to be utterly destroyed by some mighty force of nature--by flood or fire, by earthquake or storm--only the immediate survivors would know or care that it had ever been there at all; and eventually, after the passing of a few seasons, when the rains and the winds had swept the little hill, even those who had lived there would not easily find it again, would not quickly point to the precise spot where once they had given birth to their babies and buried their dead.

Years after leaving it, one former resident of the village would simply recall that "it was a long way to go to some other place."

Others had more specific memories of crisp, clear mornings when only the birds were up and about earlier than the residents, of rosy dawns and kaleidoscopic dusks, of nights brilliantly illuminated by stars, deeply silent save for the snoring of the elderly or the crying of the infants or the naughty giggling of the older children--and occasionally, from somewhere out in the darkness, the cackling shriek of hyenas or the hoarse cough of a lonely leopard.

Yet those who remember such minute details about the village where the boy would be born cannot recall whether they were ever happy when they were living there or whether, when they left, they were sad to be going. People were always arriving or departing from the village, moving in or moving on. For one reason or another, they would awaken one morning, pack up and, leaving nothing of themselves behind, plod up the next long hill toward the smoky horizon, their meager belongings on their backs, in search of some other inhospitable piece of African real estate that no one else would have, where no one else would live, where no one given a choice--including the boy--would choose to be born.

His grandmother, Ruth Khumalo, had come to the village as a young girl. It was in the fifties or early sixties, she would recall, though she could not remember exactly how old she had been when she arrived with her mother and the rest of her large family, though not her father, whom she did not know and had never met. After leaving the Bantustan, they had lived on a succession of illegal sites--squatters' camps--some of which they had been forced to abandon, some of which they had left of their own volition, either in desperation or in the false hope of finding something better. They were not alone, of course. The migration of millions of black South Africans, begun by the British a half century before, had been accelerated by the land seizures of the Afrikaner government.

In retrospect it seems odd and, of course, tragic that in those days, just after World War II, while much of the rest of the world was at least tentatively coming to grips with the embarrassing inequities of racism and colonialism, the Afrikaners were moving their country headlong in the opposite direction. As a system of government, apartheid was designed to establish as a legal, philosophical, and theological proposition that black people, like Ruth Khumalo and her family--the vast majority of the population--were inferior human beings, incapable of participating in a civilized society, forever destined to be dependent on whatever the tiny white minority might benevolently offer them.

For all her life, Ruth had known nothing but this world--the world of apartheid, with its miasmic atmosphere of helplessness and hopelessness. Any other environment would have been totally foreign to her, perhaps even frightening. She could neither read nor write, had never been to school, never been to a hospital or a clinic or a dentist, had never had a new dress or owned a pair of shoes, had gone to bed hungry on more nights than she could remember, and, like millions of other black South Africans, she had learned to settle for what was there and to expect nothing more.

That was another by-product of apartheid--the disallowance of dreams. Faced with a vast void that represented both their past and their future, Ruth and other young girls in the village and thousands of others around the country fashioned their own alternate version of happiness in one pregnancy after another.

Beginning while she was still a teenager, Ruth would bear a number of children. She was never formally married. By then, that was not at all unusual among rural Zulu women. In a way, many thousands of them were simply practicing polygamy in reverse, minus the traditional protection and assistance of husbands and without the sense of family that had once been the strength of the tribe.

Her daughter, Daphne, was born in 1969 when Ruth was nineteen years old, the second or third of her children--their birth order was never made clear to me by anyone in the family. Like Ruth's childhood, Daphne's would be difficult. She would know only deprivation. Unlike her mother, however, Daphne went to school. Though it was not much of a school, it was still a school, and she learned to read and to write and to count. In most other respects, her life was a replication of her mother's--endless seasons and cycles of hopelessness and, by the time she was sixteen, pregnancy. In 1985, Daphne gave birth to a baby girl she named Mbali.

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