On Sept. 13, Gail Johnson, the founder and director of Nkosi’s Haven, visited West Chester University to provide insight about Nkosi’s Haven and to honor the students and alumni that volunteered there this past summer.
Nkosi’s Haven is a non-governmental organization located in Berea, South Africa that provides shelter and care for HIV/AIDS-infected mothers, children, and orphaned children whose mothers passed away from the infection. Named after Nkosi Johnson, the 12-year-old spokesperson for the cause, Nkosi’s Haven has been providing care since 1999 and is still going strong, with approximately 30 mothers and 150 children in their care today.
Although Nkosi’s Haven has provided support for many mothers and children since its creation, HIV/AIDS is a virus that has infected over 5.6 billion people since 1999. With limited government support and increases in financial matters, Gail provided a deeper insight into what it is like to continuously fight for hundreds of people every day.
The evening with Ms. Johnson began with a humorous welcome speech from Dr. Kevin Dean, in which he introduced Alexis Stinson, the current Miss West Chester University. Alexis provided a great deal of background information regarding Ms. Johnson and her mission and how it has inspired many who have traveled to South Africa with the Honors College to volunteer their time and effort. She concluded with a video created by West Chester University students that combined statistics with an interview with Ms. Johnson. There was not a moment throughout that video that she did not have my attention. She is infectious and, as Dr. Dean said in the video, “There’s no way you can meet Gail Johnson without being transformed by her.”
When the video concluded, Ms. Johnson took the stage. She walked onto the stage and apologized for taking a seat, for she had such severe jet-lag that she did not know where she was going. After giving a small introduction, she invited students up to the front to ask questions. Not surprisingly, there were many students with questions ranging from the topics of Nkosi’s Haven to how she felt about it. She talked about how HIV/AIDS is transmitted and how some children are born without it but then acquire it later or through incidents of rape. She talked about how the fathers were normally never there because the ratio of men to women is so small that the men usually have multiple wives and only act as the biological father, rather than a paternal one. She provided information as to how the Haven began and the time she spent with Nkosi. But the one question I remember from the speech was regarding her greatest memory of her time in South Africa, and she responded that there were two incidents that she felt fit the bill. The first one was when she broke three ribs and not one nail. The second one was how she felt to practice Nkosi’s speech, the one given at the 13th Annual AIDS Conference in Durban. Nkosi had stage fright before going on, but after telling him that this is what he wanted to do for the longest time, he went out and delivered it perfectly. After that, she described the time that Nkosi requested to be taken off of medication. “I’ll see you in the morning, Mummy,” were the last words Ms. Johnson remembers. And I found myself crying somewhere in the back of the lecture hall.
There was so much information and so many stories that I could fill a small novel. But one thing I will say is that I did not know anything about Ms. Johnson or her cause, and I went to the speech thinking I would be bored or that I could not wait for it to end. But every minute was filled with such fun humor and such inspiration that I sometimes forgot to take notes. The Honors College is going to South Africa next in 2014, and that is something I encourage everyone to look into. To find out more about Nkosi’s Haven, you can visit their website at nkosishaven.org.
Amy Shah is a first-year student majoring in computer science. She can be reached at AS793452@wcupa.edu.