Monday, May 14, 2012


As I consider the focus on Men's Health in the month of June, I reflect on a special young man that has made a life changing impact on me. One might argue that this young boy could not be classified as a man by any standards, nor for that matter by the Oxford Dictionary however his age and frail being are hardly what defines him as a man. He was but a boy who died in his teens yet in all reality he was braver than many other who so glibly call themselves a man.

Nkosi Johnson life was short lived and I never had the privilege of standing in his presence, and yet he made an impression on me that few men have made. In a video clip made to promote a living positively publication, this brave young man relates how he was asked by a friend at school if he was sick and in total humility and with and unrivalled bravely, his sad little eyes looking straight into the camera he answers, "Yes I am sick". His friend then asks him, "What is wrong?" With his head held high he responds "I have HIV".

No matter how many times I have watched this video a tear always comes to my eye. Not a tear of sadness for a boy’s life so brief, I weep in sadness that I never had the privilege to kneel down and listen to what this brave soul could have taught me. I consider the many that are quick to call themselves men and yet have not had the courage to break the silence, or take responsibility for being infected with exactly the same illness this brave boy had. How many have died in denial to ashamed to admit the reality as Nkosi so bravely did?

What makes a man? Is it the ability to lie and deceive or does truth, honesty and humility make the man? Personally it is this young man that I wish to follow. As I started coming to terms with my own HIV status I made a decision to never deny that I am infected with HIV for if one so young could be brave enough to stand up at the International AIDS Conference and deliver the opening address at a time when the president of his country was in denial about the existence of HIV, then surely I too in his honour must follow his path and break the silence and speak the truth without shame, brave and yet so humble. Nkosi you gave me heart for you taught me to be courageous but with humility.

Last year I was fortunate to be in the presence of a wise man who addressed a classroom of newly trained HIV/AIDS Peer educators from the SAPS in Pretoria. Newly appointed as the head of corporate and employee wellness the general was addressing the candidates at the completion of a 4-day training programme, I had presented. He told a story of a man who wanted to leave a legacy behind before he died and was looking for some way of doing so that would stand the test of time.

He consulted an elder in his village who suggested he write his story in the sand on the beach. He proceeded to do so but no sooner had he started than the tide came in and washed away what he had written. He went back to the elder and told him what had happened and the wise elder told him of a huge oak tree that had stood for many years on the banks of a river on the outskirts of the village. Go and carve your story in the bark of the tree surely it will remain for all to read for eternity. The man did as told but half way through carving his legacy in the tree a team of workers arrived and told him they had come to chop down the tree to make way for a new bridge that was being built across the river.

Disheartened the man returned again to the elder and told him what had happened. Ah, said the elder, it would be wise to engrave your legacy in the rock face of the mountains over looking the village. At last the man thought this would stand the test of time and he would leave his legacy for all to admire throughout time.

He set about the laborious task spending years engraving his legacy in the rock face. Finally the task almost complete, he returned one last time to hammer the final few words into the rock face. But as he climbed the mountain he noticed that the weather had eroded the rock in so many places that his legacy was fading with time. Totally disheartened he went in search of the elder and found him on his death bed.

Sadly he told the old man what had happened and the elder said you have spent your years trying to leave a legacy in sand, wood and stone and yet nothing has remained and stood the test of time. What have you learnt? The man said he did not know! He begged the frail old man to share the secret. How do I leave a legacy that will stand the test of time? Before the elder could answer he passed away.

In sadness the man left and as he walked through the village the news of the elders passing was being related to the people in the village. The man heard people telling stories of the greatness of the elder, the kindness of his dreads, stories of his honesty and integrity and great wisdom. Suddenly the man understood. Write your legacy on the hearts of man and your legacy will stand the test of time.

As the general ended his story he told those he was addressing that they where wise just like the elder of the village. Making a difference in the lives of others would stand the test of time. The decision that they had made to set themselves apart, volunteering as HIV/AIDS peer educators would leave a legacy in the hearts of many.

As a person living with HIV I am often referred to as a sufferer, or a victim of AIDS. I have seen lesser words take away the power of greater men. What happened that gave me the strength and courage to never hear these words as a sword driven into me heart or soul but always as an opportunity to educate, and change the minds of those I come into contact with? I feel so small at times and wonder how I can possibly make a difference. It is at these times that I remember the boldness of a young man telling his friend that he has HIV. I hear his friend ask him, "Are you going to die?" And I hear Nkosi Johnson's sweet angelic voice answer. "Yes I have AIDS."

I am HIV positive and thanks to Nkosi Johnson's legacy I have become victorious as in his honour I embrace and take ownership for my status. Yes, I too will one day die more likely of an AIDS related illness but I have had the privilege and been given the opportunity to write my legacy in the hearts of many.

I challenge all men to stop the silence, denial and shame around HIV. As men we have the power to stop the spread of this virus but only if we take ownership and cast away the denial we can leave a new legacy, one that stand for HUMILITY, INTEGRITY and VICTORY.

By: Alan Brand
Positively Alive - Employee Consultant and Specialist HIV and Employee Wellness Training provider in support of HIV+ gay, bisexual and transgender (MSM) men in South Africa

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