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Mayowa Idowu: For Nkosi Johnson



It was a year into the new millennium and my father had picked up the Guardian (As always). Unusually for me, I was able to take in the contents of the cover. Normally, my first port of call would have been the sports pages. The boy whose picture was there looked like my  peer and he looked so happy. I thought to myself  enviously “Who is this small boy and why’s he on the cover of the newspaper?” As I read, I got my answers. His name was Nkosi Johnson and he had just made his return to the right side of The Lord. His smile shone through. He had a story.

A couple of months later, on a Saturday afternoon I found the Nigeria Television Authority showing a documentary on him and watched eagerly. He was born with AIDS and given up for foster care by a mother whose state of health meant that she couldn’t care for him. A white family took this terminally ill black boy as their own. In a country like South Africa which was still smarting from apartheid, it had a feel good air to it. The lines of colour and race were blurred by this simple act of empathy and humanity. The documentary showed what he was going through and how he had risen to adulation when he was rejected by a primary school because of his health status. This got the attention of those who mattered and inspired a national conversation that would eventually lead to Nelson Mandela describing him as “an icon for the struggle of natural life”.

I am at a landmark age meaning that dinner suits, hotel ballrooms and restaurants are in.  Some people toe other lines; my friend, Bisola, a case in point. As her birthday loomed, she decided to use it as an opportunity to embark on a fund raising drive for those living with HIV/AIDS whose stories weren’t as fabled as Nkosi’s. When I asked what inspired her, the response was simple. “Shuga” referring to the MTV Africa show that set out to artistically create awareness of the virus. She was so impressed with the show that in her capacity as the Events Officer of the Afro Caribbean Society at the University of Coventry, she was able to collaborate with MTV and organize an HIV awareness week. Students were spoken to and given freebies like Shuga condoms and CD’s. It also featured a film night showcasing shows feeding the awareness theme.

As I interviewed her over lunch with another of our friends, her words paint a scary picture. She was able to generate £1,532.57 which she split and administered in three cities: Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja. Her choices informed by the fact that she’s from “Port Harcourt and Lagos and charity begins at home”.  Abuja was chosen because it is the base of the Network of People Living with HIV and AIDS in Nigeria (NEPHWAN) which she was referred to by UNAIDS. Upon meeting them, she realized things weren’t as she had imagined. The drugs were free of charge but the comprehensive tests to check one’s HIV stage were not; so with the funds she raised, she bore the financial responsibility for that. She added “They need certain supplements to take with the drugs but they can’t afford them because they tend to be unemployed: companies don’t want to employ HIV patients. I listened to everyone’s situation to understand where they were coming from and disbursed money based on that. I met over 60 people and they all have different stories that need to be told” .

She told me a story that had shades of Nkosi’s. One of the people she met had been disbarred from Madonna University. That annoyed me. It’s one of our greater flaws that we have a habit of engendering discrimination. In Nkosi’s case, the school had no choice than to grant him admission because discrimination on health grounds is outlawed in South Africa. Bisola tells me that there is no bill that mirrors this in Nigeria and upon research the only grounds discrimination is prohibited against are “origin, sex, religion, status, ethnic or linguistic association”. Linguistic association?

Nkosi Johnson is a hero. Despite his condition and youth, he took a stand. This child who had come to national attention was able to go a step further and capture the ears of the world when a year before his death, he gave a speech at the 13th International AIDS conference chiding then South African president, Thabo Mbeki for not doing enough in challenging the AIDS scourge. Mbeki left the conference before Nkosi finished speaking. Nkosi humanized AIDS. This innocent angel who was suffering through no cause of his own smiled as he boldly made this cause that deprived him of doing things little kids should have been doing his own. It pointed out to us that “You can’t get AIDS by hugging, kissing, holding hands. We are normal human beings, we can walk, we can talk.” He transcended the race barrier. He transcended the health barrier. And as his story inspired the nine year old me, I hope this touches you to make sure this conversation is heard. To Gail Johnson who opened her heart and her home to Nkosi, I doff my heart.

I would conclude with a short passage I have come across in Julian Assange’s autobiography

“Every time we witness an injustice and do not act, we train our character to be passive in its presence and thereby lose all ability to defend ourselves and those we love. In a modern economy it is impossible to seal oneself off from injustice… If we can only live once, then let it be a daring adventure that draws on all our powers. Try as I may I cannot escape the sound of suffering. Perhaps as an old man I will take great comfort in pottering around in a lab and gently talking to students in the summer evening and will accept suffering with insouciance. But not now. Men in their prime, if they have convictions, are tasked to act on them. ”

Bisola recorded some of the stories she heard. Watch the video here:


Mr Idowu is Editor and Chief Content Sourcer at The Culture Custodian. Check it out! 


  1. Asgrl

    March 4, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    This was so sad to watch. For a country so rich in resources to have no established welfare system to take care of the less privileged and disenfranchised is a travesty! People stealing $20 billion to spend on lavish parties, weddings and private jets. Sick!

  2. Bleed Blue

    March 4, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    Excellent stuff. Sadly, the bias against HIV/AIDS patients seems to be one that won’t go away quickly…even people who are enlightened tend to freeze in fear at the possibility of interaction. It took me ages to open my mind and even then I’m still work in progress.

    Bisola you’re an amazing chic for what you did. Great article. Inspired dot com

  3. Bella

    March 4, 2014 at 1:29 pm

    yet here we are busy with Gays this, homosexuals things, please when will we address this situation and save our society from this disease. We have people living and in need, yet here we are focusing energy on people’s sexual preference in their personal homes?

  4. Ugo

    March 4, 2014 at 1:58 pm

    This is all so very profound and evokes a keen sense of sadness. Getting diagnosed with HIV was an immensely dark period in my life. I’m just a teensy-weensy bit over all that now. Anyone know how/where I can get involved in the HIV/AIDS workings in Nigeria, do hit me up: [email protected]
    Great work Bisola.
    Inspiring read Mayowa.

    • Bisola

      March 4, 2014 at 3:07 pm

      Hey Ugo! Trust me I know how hard it is to tell people about your status. So for that proud of you for at least trying to get over it. I’m actually working on a project and I can introduce you to the association. I’ll get around to sending you an email later today.

  5. @edDREAMZ

    March 4, 2014 at 2:07 pm

    I will start writing my own stuff… BN be at alert….

    • Bleed Blue

      March 4, 2014 at 3:49 pm

      Or BN be afraid? 🙂

    • Eve82

      March 5, 2014 at 6:22 pm

      Lol! You guys are really giving this poor boy a tough time. But I have to say I admire his thick skin 🙂 It is a free world, live and let live!

  6. FunkyW

    March 4, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    Bisola, well done, Great read Oluwamayowa!

  7. Mz Socially Awkward...

    March 4, 2014 at 11:47 pm

    What usefulness does our government serve, please? What the f*** are those retards doing with our money? Oh Lord, this is heart wrenching – look at human beings STRUGGLING to find help, the women with no jobs taking care of their infected selves, their sick husbands and their families. Those widows begging for money to send their kids to school brought me to tears. And the ones who can’t afford to feed their babies with anything other than infected breast-milk. Tomorrow, some idiot will tell me that Jonathan is “trying”. TUEH!!!! And this is just FCT, like the women’s leader said in the video, there’ll be hordes of them suffering in rural areas. How can you loot money in Nigeria and still have a soul?

    Heaven help us, the work of rehabilitation for all people living like this just seems so Herculean, forgive my feeling of hopelessness but where does one start doing anything from? Bisola, you’ve done well to bring this to light and you didn’t leave any contact information, please put one down. Those bastards in charge of the country are very likely infecting 1000s of university students with the same virus … Lord may they reap EVERY fruit of evil they’ve sown. May it fall on them a thousand fold for every life they’ve deprived.

  8. tonia emeagwali

    March 5, 2014 at 2:51 am

    Bibii I’m truly proud of you, thank you because this message goes a long way for a lot of people both HIV positive and negative. God bless you xx

  9. Ruri

    March 5, 2014 at 8:34 am

    Point of correction, Nkosi was not born with AIDS, no one is Born with AIDS, he was born with HIV. the use of AIDS in this article is wrong. AIDS is a disease caused by the HI Virus.

  10. Dr. N

    March 5, 2014 at 9:01 am

    This article is so apt. People are too smart to associate with u when u are diagnosed, forgetting the large no of undiagnosed people they are living with. Most painful is having to send a positive HIV result to a company, knowing that staff is OUT! We need legislation on this. People deserve the right to employment, despite their status, except otherwise advised. To see a young man crying and begging u to falsify his result because he borrowed money to bribe “oga at d top” before the interview, is heart- renching. Let’s embrace these people. What of the hospital staff who care for them? Do they have immunity? You need to see nurses bathing some who were even abandoned by family. Kai!

  11. Miss Anonymous

    March 5, 2014 at 3:32 pm

    Well done Bisola. I guess we all have a lot of work to do.

  12. Hmmmm

    March 7, 2014 at 11:29 am

    This makes me think about the whole controversy around homosexuality. We have such misplaced priorities.

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