A Need For Love In The Times Of AIDS

In this image provided by the People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, injured men are transported by truck after a raid by Iraqi security forces on the opposition group's camp northeast of Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, July 28, 2009.
AP Photo
When documentary filmmaker Jamila Paksima told a friend at church about an upcoming trip to South Africa, the friend told her to check out an orphanage there that was doing incredible things for children with AIDS. The name of the place was Acres of Love.

Paksima visits The Early Show to talk about how what started as a journalistic project ended up transforming her life and the life of a little girl.

Paksima's first trip came as a result of a journalism fellowship she had received from the Pew Foundation in Washington, D.C. Her story would be on the increase of child rape and AIDS in South Africa. She would be in Africa for five weeks, departing in October 2001.

When Paksima first saw Acres of Love, she was stunned. It is in an exclusive, upper middle-class neighborhood, in a fully gated community. The minute she walked in, she saw happy kids living in a bright place with happy people caring for them. It was so different from any other orphanage she had seen.

Acres of Love is a grass-roots organization founded by a South African couple, Ryan and Gerda Augdinotti. The Augdinotti's donated one of their two homes to the cause after reading a series of newspaper stories on the multitude of orphaned children with AIDS in South Africa. The initial plan was to help six children with AIDS who needed a home.

Eventually, they determined their orphanage could handle 18 children, most of whom were very sick and unacceptable elsewhere.

Shortly after opening Acres of Love, the Augdinotti's moved to southern California, but they vstill isit South Africa at least six times per year. Ryan's attitude is this: "Invest in property, the value goes up. Invest in people, the value these people give goes up.")

Paksima thought she might find that some of the orphans at this orphanage had been products of rape. She spent four hours shooting there her first day - and when she began reviewing her footage, she kept coming back to the same little girl, Sipho.

As Paksima began to work on the child rape story, she couldn't get Sipho out of her head. She returned to the orphanage days later - intending to meet new arrivals. In fact, Paksima found herself enjoying the escape from the painful project she was doing. She would shoot a little, but then put the camera down and play for hours. And she fell more in love with Sipho.

In the five weeks Paksima spent in South Africa, she visited Acres of Love eight times. Her last stop, on her way to the airport to return home, was at Acres of Love. Paksima tried to figure out how to say goodbye to Sipho. She was worried the girl would cry, and secretly contemplated adopting the little girl. Sipho wouldn't say goodbye - instead, she said, "I'll see you tomorrow."

By Christmas, unable to get Sipho out of her mind and unable to adopt her yet, Paksima decided to pay for Sipho's anti-retrovirals, a way for Paksima to help make Sipho's life better.

In March, Paksima found herself back in South Africa, reporting for Bill Moyers on Jimmy Carter's and Bill Gates Sr.'s visit to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic.

At a special event with Nelson Mandela, Paksima met Ryan Augdinotti, who had brought Sipho and a few other children to the event. Sipho remembered her and they hugged. Paksima couldn't believe how different Sipho looked, much healthier.

Since then, Paksima returned a third time to South Africa in May to do a story about Sipho who had moved into the second orphanage. Sipho ran everywhere, her English was wonderful and she seemed much healthier.

Paksima brought her medical records back to the U.S. to be reviewed by a pediatric AIDS doctor here. Her numbers are so low the virus isn't seen. It is still there, but at this rate, Paksima was told, Sipho could live into her 20s. By then, there could be a cure.

On July 26, Acres of Love celebrated Sipho's fourth birthday. She begins school this year.

Acres of Love has bought a third home, next door to the other two. This home is a hospice, for the very sick children who will not make it. The foundation is about to buy a fourth home in another South African town and a fifth in Capetown.

Paksima's story about this orphanage is entitled "The Gift" and it can be seen on the PBS series Life 360.

South Africa has the largest incidence of AIDS in the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, 6,000 people die of AIDS every day.

For more information:
If you would like to make a donation to Acres Of Love, please call:
949.798.6270 in USA
011.884.5388 in South Africa

Or mail your contribution to:
Acres of Love
Home for Abandoned and AIDS babies
4695 Mac Arthur Court 11th Floor
Newport Beach, CA 92660