Fourteen years ago he was born in a dirt-floored shack in Transkei, in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Soon thereafter, Yamkela and his mother took a bus trip across the country and eventually landed in a settlement called Kayamandi just outside of Stellenbosch, South Africa.
Yamkela’s mother Nosintu was sixteen when she gave birth and was most likely infected with HIV from Yamkela’s father. She did not know that she passed on the virus to her child.
When he was born she gave him the name “Yamkela” which means “acceptance” or “welcome” in the Xhosa language.
Nosintu’s HIV status was not discovered until her baby got sick. When Yamkela was two he developed a serious case of TB (in fact, so serious that he had to endure almost three years of treatment). At the time, the medical professionals decided to test Nosintu for HIV, not her sick child. It was confirmed that she was HIV positive.
Yamkela’s mother died in front of him when he was five years old. He never met his birth father.
Before his mother died, an American man named Charlie came to Kayamandi in an effort to raise awareness and aid to those infected and affected by HIV. Yamkela’s mother was one of the people Charlie took care of. After her death, Charlie took Yamkela to the clinic to have him tested for the virus. At age six Yamkela’s HIV status was revealed as positive.
Yamkela lived with a friend in Kayamandi while Charlie traveled back and forth between the U.S. and South Africa in an effort to raise awareness, funding and medicines for those who desperately needed them. The South African government was slow to respond to the burgeoning AIDS pandemic in their country and did not offer the treatment options to its HIV positive citizens until 2003.
In 2005, after a long and complicated process, Charlie legally adopted Yamkela.
This year Charlie, his wife Deboraha, Yamkela, and his baby sister Ella moved to Grand Rapids. Yamkela now attends The Potter’s HouseMiddle School and plays on the soccer team.
Yamkela takes three pills per day for his HIV. He is healthy and looking forward to a bright future—hopefully one involving professional soccer.
This summer Yamkela went to Young Life camp and experienced leaders that he could trust and with whom he could share his life story.
Yamkela also attended a training program for youth leaders called GAP. One of the counselors prompted him to be honest and give the larger group a chance to know him—HIV and all. With trembling limbs and a fearful heart, Yamkela disclosed to the other teenagers that he is HIV positive. Their response of love and acceptance has changed his life.
When asked why he would be willing to have his story shared so publicly during Artprize, he responded by saying, "If you’re holding onto something—just let it out--like a giant burp. If you don’t it will just get bigger, bigger and bigger. Just get it out. You’ll feel better. Our secrets affect us and how we think and what we think about people. People need to be authentic and learn how to be real."
In other words, all people need to feel accepted. And welcome.
Yamkela also wants the world to know that he has never lost hope—and he never will.
This is not ok.
HIV is treatable and preventable.
Increasing evidence demonstrates that investments in HIV response can lead to clear reductions in discrimination, stigma, infection, and death.
My friend Yamkela is fourteen years old. He is from a small shanty town in South Africa and now lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Yamkela has HIV.
Yamkela is healthy, happy, and living a very full life.
He is a beacon of hope, strength, and courage.
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Johnny Clauson is an artist, designer, and business owner.
Part of the WaterPrize team in 2010, a top 25 ArtPrize entry which he both painted and designed. He has been honing his artistic style for over a decade now, featuring a variety of design, stencil, and spray paint work. The vast majority of his paintings focus on humanitarian issues to raise both support and awareness.
Johnny’s paintings have been featured at Mars Hill Bible Church as well as Capelli Salon, Love Tattoo, the Gerald R Ford Museum, and numerous private collections.
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4' x 8' stencil painting on wood
ArtPrize Vote # 52771
Green Lion Gallery
150 E Fulton, Grand Rapids MI 49503
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