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Millions of Deaths, Seen Through A Life

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2004; Page C01

Statistics for AIDS in Africa are so overwhelmingly depressing they make your eye sockets throb. The United Nations is constantly reporting things like:

• Seventy percent of all people on Earth who are HIV-positive live in the region.

"Where did he get so much grit and chutzpah?" wondered journalist Jim Wooten, above, when he met Nkosi Johnson, the AIDS-infected Zulu boy whose story he tells in his book. (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

• In 2003, 2.2 million died of AIDS and an estimated 3 million new cases were reported.

• In six countries, including South Africa, at least one in five adults is HIV-positive. In both Botswana and Swaziland, more than 37 percent of adults are infected.

AIDS in Africa is a mass-grave-in-the-making that is beyond mortal comprehension. So how can someone tell such an impossibly vast, apparently hopeless story?

Jim Wooten, a veteran reporter for ABC News and a fixture in official Washington, has found a way. Just tell the story. Tell it straightforward, tell it simply and get out of the way.

Rather than painting a sweeping landscape on a vast tragic canvas, he works in miniature in his new book, "We Are All the Same: A Story of a Boy's Courage and a Mother's Love."

It is the story of Nkosi Johnson, a Zulu child infected with the HIV virus. Johnson's biological mother -- who was already infected when she gave birth -- takes Nkosi to an all-white hospice in Johannesburg. He is informally adopted by a white family and raised in their home. In his short life, through energy, wisdom and an indomitable spirit, he becomes a spokesman for the anti-AIDS crusade.

Wooten met Nkosi in 2000 when the boy was rehearsing a speech that he was to deliver to the United Nations International AIDS Conference in Durban.

"We are all the same," the boy was saying. "We are not different from one another. We all belong to one family. We love and we laugh. We hurt and we cry. We live and we die."

The TV reporter was impressed by the kid's grit and his grin.

"I had more than enough questions for three or four interviews," Wooten writes, "questions like, who was this kid, and where did he come from, and where did he get so much grit and chutzpah, and how smart was he, and what made him tick, and what made him different, and how genuine was his supposed indifference to death, and what would happen to him, and, in the end, who the hell would care?"

Wooten became friends with Nkosi and his foster mother, Gail Johnson. He saw him several more times before Nkosi died in 2001. Nkosi was 12 and he weighed 20 pounds.

By telling this one small tale of one small child, Wooten gives us a clear porthole onto a seemingly endless sea.

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