Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Cotlands Memorial Wall & Nkosi Johnson
Yesterday, I was taken to see the Cotlands Memorial Wall in Johannesburg's Westpark Cemetery. The wall was erected on International AIDS Day, December 1, 2001 to memorialize the children in Cotlands' care who have died from AIDS. During the period between 1996 and 2004, before Cotlands was able to introduce ARVs (Antiretroviral treatments), between 3 and 6 children died each month (51 in 2002); there were only 8 deaths in 2005, and even fewer in recent years. Since 2001, two more walls have been added to the first memorial wall to house the ashes of deceased children, most of whom were orphans or had no family burial place. I think there were 15-25 plaques on each side of each wall, with the years 1999-2001 each using up an entire side. Westpark Cemetery also has the grave of Nkosi Johnson, the longest living child born HIV+, whose white adoptive mother made his fight against AIDS part of a crusade to inform the public of the pandemic and to confront Mbeki's government for it's neglect in providing public access to antiretroviral treatments. He died at age 12. His adoptive mother started a foundation for HIV+ mothers and their children, named Nkosi's Haven. Just before I left the U.S., I read a book about Nkosi by Jim Wooten, We Are All The Same: A Story of a Boy's Courage and a Mother's Love (2004). Nkosi was an invited speaker at the XIII Annual AIDS Conference in Durban in July 2000, and the standing ovation he received for his plea to ANC government to provide AIDS treatments was a public embarrassment for President Mbeki, who walked out of the session. In 2005, he was awareded posthumously the first KidsRights Foundation's international Children Peace Prize in Rome.
It was somewhat disturbing to see the obvious neglect of Nkosi's grave in Westpark; the neighboring marble structures were polished and clean with fresh flowers on them, while Nkosi's was dull, littered with bird droppings, and had a meager flower arrangement. Odette, who brought me to see the Cotlands Memorial Wall, visits the cemetery regularly because a relative lies there; she said that Gail Johnson never comes to take care of the grave, even though she lives nearby.