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One Boy's Heroism in the Face of AIDS


Nkosi Johnson, who died in 2001 of AIDS at age 12, inspired millions in Africa and around the world to action in the fight against the epidemic. The South African boy is the subject of a new book by ABC newsman Jim Wooten, who says Johnson's courage in the face of death was deeply moving.

Johnson was born in poverty in KwaZulu-Natal, one of the South African provinces hardest hit by the HIV virus. Before his death, he was the longest surviving child with AIDS in South Africa.

He spoke to the International AIDS Conference in Durban in 2000, reminding the audience that AIDS victims were no different from other people: "We are normal. We are human beings... We have needs just like everyone else. We are all the same."

Wooten tells NPR's Michele Norris that at the end of one of his interviews with Johnson, the boy reminded him: "Wait just a moment, Jim. You haven't asked me about death." Johnson then went on to say that while he didn't want to die, he was not afraid of dying.

And he left Wooten with a message that floored the newsman for its youthful insight: "Do all you can with what you have in the time you have in the place you are."

Following is an excerpt from We Are All the Same by Jim Wooten.

Book Excerpt

He was born in a place that did not exist.

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.

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.

Daphne's second baby occupied so little space in her womb that strangers in the village might not have noticed she was pregnant at all. Even by December of 1988, when she told her mother, Ruth, and her sisters and friends that she thought she was probably in her eighth month, they all laughed at her, found it hard to believe she was that far along, teased her mercilessly about her size—or, more precisely, about her lack of size.

Her younger half sister, Cynthia, remembered such moments.

How you do that, girl?

How come you not a cow like the rest of us?

You sleep with a midget?

Or some kind of alien?

You got a pea in your pod?

Girl, how you do that?

Like her mother, Daphne was a small but solidly constructed woman with an almost perfectly round face. But while Ruth seemed congenitally dour, Daphne had a quick smile and a sunny disposition, and most of the time she simply laughed off the steady stream of jibes about her pregnancy, accepted them as just a bit of fun being poked within the bounds of friendship and family.

Yet, as Cynthia would later remember, there was a limit to her Daphne's patience.

Girl, where you get this child?

That question, which seemed invariably to follow the others, was different for Daphne. She resented it, and it always seemed to set her teeth on edge—though if she'd heard it once, she'd heard it a hundred times, so often in fact that her daughter, just learning to talk, had eagerly enlisted in the interrogation.

"Mummy?" Mbali would ask, splaying her chubby fingers against Daphne's abdomen. "Where you get baby?"

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

To the others she offered not a word, for she knew that the question was unrelated to biology, to where babies come from and how they're made. They were not sophisticated teenage girls, not by Western standards, but there had been no mystery about sex and procreation for them since soon after they had entered puberty. Many of them knew exactly what intercourse entailed and understood its potential for both pleasure and pregnancy. Some had experimented with the enjoyment, while others, like Daphne, had experienced both—and in the nameless village where they all lived, neither was taboo. In fact, both in their small world and in the larger swath of rural South Africa, there were few if any role models for chastity, including Daphne's mother.

Ruth seemed rather proud of the sexual choices she had made in her life, did not regret them at all or regard them as any different from those her own mother or her peers had made. She defended them as customary, and as evidence she declared that offhand she could not remember any marriages at all between the members of her extended family. Nor could she identify a genuine couple among any of her acquaintances—that is, a man and woman living under the same roof, committed to one another, regardless of their legal status. I once asked if she could explain why marriage or the tradition of couples seemed so unimportant to her and in her community. She shrugged and, after a moment's thought, turned the question in on itself. "Because it is not important," she growled, increasingly irritated with my prying. "And it never has been," she added. That would be her final word on the subject.

For Ruth this was simply the way it was, and just as she had incurred no condemnation, neither would Daphne face any cultural or moral indictment for having had her first baby at sixteen—"out of wedlock," as the Western euphemism would describe it—or for being pregnant again three years later and still unmarried.

Girl, where you get this child?

So if the question was not about biology, neither was it about deviating from the norm. Daphne was conforming to the standards and customs of her time and place, of her family, of her mother. She might be teased, but she would not be criticized.

Girl, where you get this child?

It wasn't a question of morality or cultural values. Her sisters and friends simply wanted to know the father's name—and her stony silence on the subject, as Cynthia recalled, served only to sharpen their probing.

We know it's Mbali's father.

The same man.

It has to be.

It's someone else?

A local fellow?

A Madadeni boy?

Do we know him?

Or that skinny kid from Osizweni?

You liked him, didn't you?

You said you did.

Tell us girl, where you get this child?

Only once did Daphne drop the veil, and then only on her own terms.

No, she told Cynthia, the father of her new baby was not the father of Mbali.

"Do I know him?" Cynthia had pressed.

Maybe, Daphne had answered.

"Tell me," Cynthia insisted, sensing a breakthrough. "I won't tell anybody else."

Yes you will.

"No I won't. I promise."

You have to. You can't help it.

Cynthia was forced to admit then and later that her half sister probably had a point.

Daphne's classroom education may have ended after the eighth grade, but she clearly grasped the sociological dynamics of their village. Primarily, the village lay within the economic sphere of the small town of Dannhauser; then, slightly farther away there was Dundee, which was a bit larger, and, beyond that, the city of Newcastle—the smoky coal-mining center named by the British for its counterpart in England—and the nearby black townships of Madadeni and Osizweni. Compared to them, Daphne's nameless little village was utterly bland and boring. In such a place, so compact and so insular, privacy was minimal and gossip compulsive—which was why she had told Cynthia she would be unable to resist passing along her secret, if she knew the secret.

"We all loved to tittle-tattle," Cynthia would later explain. "All of us except Daphne. For some reason—I don't know why—she hated it. Just hated it."

Yet she could not escape it.

That previous winter—summer in America and Europe—when Daphne had returned from a brief stay in Johannesburg, having left Mbali in Ruth's care, she confessed she was disappointed not to have found either a job or a more promising life. Like so many black South Africans before her, she had discovered that her reach exceeded her grasp. Still, she said, she had not regretted the experience, and what she appreciated most about the big city was the anonymity it offered. She had simply vanished into its masses, and because no one had known who she was, no one had cared who she was. Everyone had left her alone, and she had liked it a lot, she said.

She told Cynthia she sometimes felt invisible there.

"But weren't you lonely?" her half sister asked. "I mean, sometimes?"

Yes, sometimes.

"Ha!" Cynthia chortled. "It's somebody from Johannesburg."

Who someone?

"This baby's father."

Uncharacteristically, Daphne snapped at her sister.

Leave me alone!

Her attitude puzzled her peers. As Cynthia would explain, a certain candor about such matters was an integral part of their fellowship in a place where they had so little else to entertain them. Besides, as her friends often pointed out, hadn't Daphne willingly identified Mbali's father even before she was born—and afterward had she not given her new daughter his surname? So why was she constructing and maintaining such a deep mystery about her second pregnancy?

Even all these years later, it remains a question—one of those to which I found no answer. Was she, like any other adolescent craving attention, simply encouraging more questions by refusing to answer any? Or had she simply had enough of people poking around in what she considered to be her business and hers alone? Cynthia did not regard Daphne as promiscuous—not in the context of their culture, at least—but she did admit to having entertained the possibility that Daphne would not say who the father was because she might not know who the father was.

Or could it have been that in December 1988, even in such a permissive time and place, Daphne suspected that she had somehow managed to cross a forbidden line into a social or cultural or family territory that was taboo?

For whatever reason, she kept the name of her new baby's father to herself. She had told Cynthia that he was not the father of her daughter, and Cynthia had believed her, had thought that was probably logical, since she had not seen that fellow around since long before Mbali's birth. The truth—whatever the truth was—would forever remain Daphne's secret.

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.

From We Are All the Same by Jim Wooten. Copyright 2004. Published by Penguin Press.

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