We Are All the Same
WE ARE ALL THE SAME: A Story of a Boy’s Courage and a Mother’s Love. By Jim Wooten. Penguin Press. 243 pp. $19.95
“Listen to me, Jim. . . . I wish that God had made me white,” 10-year-old Xolani Nkosi told Jim Wooten. “The reason I wish that is because I believe that white children don’t get HIV and I think black children do get HIV.” As often happened when ABC senior correspondent Wooten found himself with Nkosi in South Africa, he was forced to yield in silence to the boy’s perspicacity. From where they were sitting in 1999, there was devastation and death from the HIV/AIDS pandemic as far as the eye could see—and a president, Thabo Mbeki, in fervent denial that the disease existed.
The accidents of Nkosi’s short life made him a unique spokesman for the tens of millions of African children orphaned by and afflicted with AIDS. He seemed to have a knack for touching the heart of everyone he met, not least Wooten, who confesses himself never so moved by a subject as he was by Nkosi. “I think,” Wooten writes, “it was that grin that got me.”
On the ruined landscape that once had been Zululand, Nkosi was born in 1989, an alarmingly small and sick baby. His unmarried mother, Daphne, “was not yet 20 years old, yet she was already dying—and on the very first day of his life, so was her son.” Wooten sketches the hardscrabble life of a group of women and children trying to survive in the inhospitable land; that these people are condemned to suffer death by AIDS on top of every other hardship is unspeakable. Realizing that she will die soon, Daphne bravely moves to the city, takes her sick baby to a hospice for gay white AIDS sufferers in Johannesburg, and asks, “Can he come and stay in this place?” Remarkably, the door opens, and the plagued, isolated white men embrace the black baby.
The hospice founder is Gail Johnson, a feisty, plain-speaking South African white woman who owns a small PR business. When the hospice loses its funding and the dying men are turned out, Johnson ends up with baby Nkosi. The two will change each other’s lives and, Wooten argues, the world.
Nkosi spends the next few years coddled by the four-member Johnson family and enjoying the life of middle-class whites in a sunny, split-level house. He loses the languages of his people but proves a bright and fluent speaker of English. This transracial, cross-cultural upbringing—and the fact that good nutrition, good hygiene, and regular doctors’ visits allow Nkosi to live well beyond the two or three years allotted to him as an HIV-positive black baby in a township—enables him to “speak truth to power” in the language of the powerful. His observations are those of any smart African child surveying the world’s cruelty, but he wears the crisp uniform of a Johannesburg schoolboy and speaks in the quick accents of the whites.
“You haven’t asked me about death,” the boy says to the journalist one day. “I feel
like I’m going to die pretty soon, like my mother died. . . . But at least she got to be a grownup. I don’t think I will ever be a grownup.” As usual, Nkosi is right. He dies an international celebrity in 2001, age 12, weighing 20 pounds.
Playfulness, affection, courage, and sorrow entwine in the wasted body of the boy, and in this astute and heartfelt memoir. Wooten knows it’s not possible for American readers to care about five million, 10 million, 20 million orphans, but he makes us care about one, and that’s a start.