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

by Jim Wooten

Page 1 of 4

We Are All the Same -- The Life and Death of Nkosi Johnson
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    Five million more people contracted HIV last year alone. We've all seen the statistics, and they numb us; on some level our minds shut down to a catastrophe of this scope. As with other such immense human tragedies in the past, it can take the story of one special child's life to make us open our minds and our hearts.

    While the majority of all AIDS cases occur in Africa, a South African boy named Nkosi Johnson did not become "an icon of the struggle for life," in Nelson Mandela's words, because he was representative but because he was so very remarkable. Everyone who met Nkosi Johnson was struck by his blinding life force, his powerful intelligence and drive, his determination to make something of his short life. By the time of his death, the work he had done in his eleven years on earth was such that The New York Times ran his obituary on the front page, as did many other papers, and tributes appeared on the evening news broadcasts of every major network.

    Nkosi Johnson did not live to tell his own story, but one writer whose life he changed has taken up the work of telling it for him. Luckily for the world that writer is Jim Wooten. In his hands, We Are All the Same is a powerful testament to the strength of the human spirit, even as it bears witness to the scope of the tragedy that is unfolding in Africa and around the world, cutting down millions of boys and girls like Nkosi Johnson before they can reach their promise. Written with the brevity and power of a parable, We Are All the Same is a book that is meant to be read by all of us, of all ages and walks of life. Its beginning and ending are terribly sad, but in the middle is the extraordinarily inspiring story of a very unlucky little boy who said, "Never mind. I'm going to make my life matter." And he did.


    CHAPTER ONE from
    We Are All the Same - The Life and Death of Nkosi Johnson:

    By 1989 the name and the boundaries of Zululand had all but vanished from the maps of South Africa, its vast territory attached to provinces with less-exotic names, its best acreage confiscated and given to others, its people scattered about the country in ugly ghettos or squatters' camps. Yet its hardiest memories had survived among many of the elderly who had once lived there, and to this day its more powerful myths persist among their children and their children's children as well.

    And no wonder.

    Zululand had been a truly memorable place, occupying as much as a quarter of what would eventually become South Africa, stretching from the beaches of the Indian Ocean to a rugged mountain range called u Khahlanha, "the Barrier of Spears." In some parts it had blossomed with acacia trees and aloes, in others with sugarcane and citrus groves thick with oranges and lemons. It had not only the world's second-highest waterfall but also the wondrous Valley of a Thousand Hills, which had been created, said the Zulus, when God crumpled the world in his hands just at the point of discarding it in disgust...before deciding against it--and over the years, even into its declining days, it had remained a haunting source and setting for the storytellers of the country.

    In the opening pages of Cry, the Beloved Country, the poignant novel about a disintegrating Zulu family, Alan Paton depicted the barren land left to the tribe by the late 1940s and, with bitter brevity, described what had befallen the people struggling to survive on it.

    "The streams are all dry," he wrote.


    Too many cattle feed upon the grass and too many fires have burned it. Stand shod upon it for it is coarse and sharp and the stones cut under the feet. It is not kept or guarded or cared for. It no longer keeps men, guards men, cares for men.

    The great red hills stand desolate and the earth has torn away like flesh. The lightning flashes over them, the clouds pour down upon them, the dead streams come to life, full of the red blood of the earth. Down in the valleys, women scratch the soil that is left and the maize hardly reaches the height of a man. They are valleys of old men and old women, of mothers and children. The men are away. The soil cannot keep them anymore.


    Paton christened his fictional family Kumalo, a common enough name among Zulus, roughly the equivalent of Smith or Jones in America. For long generations, reaching far back into the previous century, tens of thousands of flesh-and-blood Zulu families had borne it, including the one from which the boy would come. His maternal grandmother was Ruth Khumalo, and as her name would inextricably connect her to the roots of her tribe, her life would mirror its descent into the madness of postwar South Africa. She would spend years in what was left of Zululand, but she never knew what it once had been, had never stood atop one of those thousand hills to gaze out on high grasslands so perfect for livestock and farming, had never seen for herself--as millions of white tourists have seen--the Tulego River's breathtaking cascade. None of that would ever be a part of her life, for Ruth Khumalo would experience Zululand only in the grim terms of Alan Paton's fictional vision.

    Ruth Khumalo was born in 1950 into that first misbegotten generation of black South Africans who would live under the official strictures of apartheid, a Kafkaesque universe of repressive racial regulations that had begun to take malevolent shape in 1948 when Afrikaners--mainly of Dutch and French descent--won control of the South African government from the British and immediately set about reinforcing the dominance of whites in the country. In Afrikaans--their language--apartheid simply means "apartness," a benign and harmless concept, but as it came to be applied to black South Africans, it translated into a brutal system of segregation and subjugation that would last for nearly half a century and eventually subject the country to international condemnation, to economic and political pressures that would finally contribute to its demise.

    Although "apartheid" is now a familiar term in much of the world, a few brief details of its history seem necessary to explain its grotesque impact on the life of Ruth Khumalo as well as on her children and their children, including the boy. Its evil evolution began with the forced registration-by-race of everyone in the country, soon followed by the division of every town and city into areas in which only those of a particular race could legally reside. Few whites were affected, but hundreds of thousands of black citizens were rousted from their homes and neighborhoods and forced to live only in segregated townships near the urban centers.

    Next, so-called pass laws severely restricted the movement of black South Africans around their own country--and although none of these measures represented a dramatic departure from the de facto customs and traditions to which South Africa had long been accustomed, the Afrikaners laid them on in increasingly minute detail, codified them, hardened them into legislation and then law. Having dealt with the cities and towns, they launched a massive rural land grab, evicting millions of black South Africans from the fields and pastures on which they had lived for generations and offering in exchange enclaves carved from the least-fertile acreage in the country. Ostensibly tribal, these Bantustans were devised not only to open up more good land for white farmers but also to make it appear--to outsiders, at least--that whites were merely one of many African tribes happily living together while separately sharing the land. In reality the goal was to jam more than half the national population into about 10 percent of the land, to make 40 million people more or less disappear. The Bantustans were nothing more than wilderness ghettos, where even subsistence survival was next to impossible.

    Ruth Khumalo was born on one of them.

    Years later she would tell her own children that among the first phrases she learned to say was Kodwa silambile. In the Zulu language, it means, "We are hungry." She also learned, of course, that the word Zulu itself means "paradise." She would never understand why.

    Like thousands of desperate black families, hers simply walked away from the Bantustan, looking for some improvement in their lives. Many headed for the already overflowing townships established near the all-white cities. By the mid-1950s, in fact, the townships were home to a majority of the country's black population, but they were such rough and rowdy places that many of the rural dispossessed chose not to join the urban rush--too weak or too poor, too unskilled and too uneducated, too tired and too frightened to be comfortable in them. Besides, their pastoral legacy was strong. They had lived all their days in the countryside, and it was there that many of them chose to remain.

    Yet once they chose to leave the Bantustans, they had no choice but to become rootless nomads, wandering the rural reaches in search of someplace--anyplace--to settle, legally or otherwise. For Ruth Khumalo and her children and their children, this was among the most damning legacies of apartheid. In the land of their birth, they and millions like them were homeless, with no more status than illegal aliens. Zululand was no longer theirs. It had been stolen.

    For a tribe that had occupied such a vast swath of southern Africa, it had been a precipitous decline. For much of the nineteenth century, the Zulus had been the continent's archetypal warriors, famous for inventing new weapons and adopting innovative battlefield tactics. Their fierce warriors had followed a succession of bold chiefs, most notably the shrewd Shaka, who led them first against their black neighbors and then against waves of white Europeans. Even though the whites were prone to turn on each other, their internecine squabbles proved irrelevant. In the end the Zulus--like most other African tribes faced with European colonization--were vanquished.

    In such a long and bloody process, Zululand became a mother lode of legend. The last of the Bonaparte line, the son of Napolean III, was slain there, by Zulus. Not far from where he fell, more than a thousand British soldiers were slaughtered in one day, by Zulus. In another battle, white settlers killed so many Zulus that a nearby stream was renamed Blood River. A youthful Winston Churchill, working as a reporter, was captured in the same war in which a young Mohandas Gandhi was serving as a volunteer medic. The Englishman escaped, the Indian survived, and each went home to other matters, but history was not nearly so kind to the Zulus. By the end of the nineteenth century, most of the land they had conquered and captured over the years was all gone.

    Still, even that did not seem to change who they were, or at least who they tried to be. Squeezed into a shrunken fraction of the space they had formerly occupied, the Zulus nevertheless maintained many of the traditions that had become inherent parts of their culture. Paramount among these was the singular importance of the family. It was, in fact, the bedrock of their character and their community, the overarching value of the tribe. In every Zulu village, the aged were respected and revered, the disabled and the orphans embraced and cared for, the children treasured and taught. While polygamy was customary, husbands protected and provided for their wives no matter how many they had. The women, in turn, honored their men. Marriages were sacred and enduring, families stable and strong.

    Then, in the early twentieth century, British colonial authorities imposed a tax on the Zulus that had to be paid in cash. Those who did not pay it were subject to fines or imprisonment or both, but while most Zulus were willing to pay it, few had any cash. The basis of their economy was livestock, its primary currency cattle.

    Almost immediately--by the hundreds at first, then by the thousands--the men left their villages to find jobs in a burgeoning industrial economy where they could earn the cash to pay the tax that would at least keep them legal. Only a tiny fraction of their wives and children accompanied them in a massive male exodus from the countryside, just as the British had planned all along. The tax created a cheap labor force for the whites who owned the coal mines and the diamond mines and the mills. In a generation or two, the Zulus were farmers and herders no more, no longer proudly self-sufficient, and their families, once the very soul of their tribe, quickly began to crumble. For a brief moment, they rose en masse in a bloody insurrection, a fierce tax rebellion doomed from the start and quickly extinguished by the British, who had not only the reins of government in their hands but most of the guns as well.




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