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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In the context of her experience, it would have made perfect sense for Daphne to keep silent about her second baby's father because she knew from her experience not to expect his presence or participation in her life or in the life of their child. After all, she had completely lost contact with Mbali's father long before her birth, did not know if he knew he had a daughter, did not anticipate that she would ever see him again, and frankly did not care if she did or not.

The same was true for her own father. She might have seen him every single day on the road between her village and Madadeni or Dannhauser, but she would have had no idea who he was, not even if he had happened to stroll into their dilapidated shack one day and introduce himself. Similarly, her Zulu grandfathers were invisibly anonymous--and because there had never been any constant male presence in her life, certainly not one with any lasting significance for her, it was almost as though her entire family, including her mother, actually had come from God, conceived without benefit of male parents.

Paternity had been reduced to a triviality in the Zulu culture. Like marriage, the currency of fatherhood had been seriously devalued. At any age it was entirely acceptable--and indeed much more the rule than the exception--for a man to have intercourse with a woman without having to concern himself with whether conception might occur. If a pregnancy did result, which was quite often the case, since very few Zulu men or women practiced any form of birth control (like most African men, Zulus seemed to abhor the use of condoms), he would move blithely on, without a backward glance.

The old Zulu traditions of strong marriages and healthy families had faded into obsolescence. Like the colorful costumes and crafts of the past, they had become quaint if charming relics, not concepts with which Daphne was at all familiar. And who could blame her for concluding, having had no contact at all with her own father or her grandfathers and having already lost track of Mbali's father, that the father of the child growing inside her was similarly irrelevant to her life? He simply did not matter, and if he did not matter, why bother with his name?

Like millions of other black South Africans, Daphne had learned not to dream, had learned, as her mother had learned, to be realistic, to settle quietly for the way things were, for the way they had always been before, and for the way she was certain they would always be in her life, in her little settlement, in what had once been Zululand, in a country that would forever be ruled and run by whites.

"Is he a Zulu?" Cynthia had once asked her--and for once Daphne had given her a straight answer.

Yes, he is a Zulu man.

That seemed slightly important to both girls. After all, one in five black South Africans was a Zulu, by far the largest ethnic group in the population. Yet the years had worn down what had once been an enormous tribal pride. The most feared and fearsome people in all of southern Africa were by then famous for little more than fierce outbursts of primitive political violence and a certain tourist appeal, which included Shaka Land, a former movie set converted into a theme park and named for their most famous chief. One Zulu writer suggested that many of the more visible members of the tribe had by then become "postcard Zulus," merely costumed actors playing roles they neither appreciated nor understood.

By December 1988, what was left of their land had become a fertile garden of cyclical poverty. It was as though their privation was somehow genetic, transferred biologically in some sad double helix of DNA from one Zulu generation to the next. For Daphne and her friends, there was not much else to expect from their lives except broken and usually dysfunctional families and perhaps a passing romance or two with a man who would afterward promptly go on his way.

On the fourth day of February, 1989, Daphne rather calmly announced that her water had broken and her labor had begun. There was no hectic hurrying and scurrying here and there. Having babies, after all, was not exactly a novel event in the Khumalo family or in the lives of the other families around them. As the usual afternoon thunderstorms began to roil up on the horizon, someone rushed to a nearby shebeen, a beer hall down the rutted road, to use the telephone there to call a relative who lived in the area. He came quickly in the old truck he used to deliver firewood and, in the pouring rain, drove Daphne to a rudimentary clinic in Dannhauser. It was exclusively for black people, of course. Its facilities were meager, its staff limited (there were no doctors on duty), and its hygiene suspect, but it was the same place where Mbali had been delivered hale and hearty by a midwife three years before--and late that evening, with the same woman in attendance, Daphne gave birth to the boy.

Early the next morning, after barely any sleep, cradling him in her arms and wearing the same clothes she had worn to the clinic, Daphne climbed into her relative's rickety truck again and took the bone-jarring ride back to the muddy settlement where, in addition to the usual clucking over a newborn and the predictable comparisons of his looks with those of his mother and grandmother (not to his anonymous father, of course), there was also a sudden comprehension of why Daphne had gained so little weight throughout her pregnancy.

The baby was tiny.

He weighed, Cynthia would guess, no more than four or five pounds, if that, and he was clearly not nearly as healthy as his sister, Mbabli, had been as an infant. His nasal passages were clogged, his breathing severely labored.

"It'll take a lot of sucking for that boy," Ruth noted sadly as Daphne sat outside the shack, nursing him in the afternoon sun. Mbali stood nearby, wide-eyed. She approached her mother and tentatively touched her brother's face. "Mummy?" she asked. "Where you get this baby?"

As always, Daphne answered softly, Just like you, this baby comes from God.

Mbali asked his name.

Daphne thought for a moment, then answered.

This baby's name is Xolani and, just like you, Nkosi. See? Mbali Nkosi. Xolani Nkosi. Just the same.

Everyone assumed, of course, that her secret was at last a secret no more. She had given the boy her daughter's surname. Therefore, his father and the girl's were one and the same. Case closed. Cynthia thought she knew better but was not quite certain. Daphne had told her that Mbali's father was not the father of the child she had been carrying.

"So why give him the same name?" Cynthia asked.

It's for Mbali. Now they can really be a brother and sister. Not half, like us.

The identity of his father would remain Daphne's secret, another of the questions to which I could not find an answer. Yet, whoever he was, Daphne was quite mistaken about his unimportance or his irrelevance to her life. In fact, whoever he may have been, or whatever she may have thought of him, or whatever the circumstances of their relationship, or however dear or trivial he may have been to her or she to him--in terms of her life and her survival, he was the most significant person she had ever met or known in her life--or ever would.

He had introduced into her young body something much more vital than his semen. He had impregnated her with death.

Daphne was not yet twenty years old, yet she was already dying--and on the very first day of his life, so was her son, the tiny child who had occupied so little space inside her womb.

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