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by Jacqueline Nunes 

In South Africa, in the valley of 1,000 Hills in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, 25 children raise their voices in song every morning as they rise, and throughout the day as they do their chores, play and attend school.

The children are orphans of AIDS; their parents died of a disease that kills 5,000 people in Africa every day. In Ryerson terms, this means that in less than five days the entire full-time student population would die of the disease.

In 2003, fourth-year photography student Pauline von Moltke volunteered for three months at the orphanage, called AGAPE, which means “unconditional love” in Zulu. Later that year, Paul Taylor, a film student at Bournemouth University in England, also volunteered at the orphanage with von Moltke.

“It was the most amazing experience either of us have ever had,” von Moltke said.

“It sounds cheesy,” Taylor said, “but (volunteering at AGAPE) changed my life.”

The two students met at Ryerson when Taylor came to the school as an exchange student. After realizing they shared the experience of meeting the unforgettable children of AGAPE, von Moltke and Taylor, who are now a couple, vowed to help the children.

“They have beautiful voices,” von Moltke said. “We figured we could help them through singing.”

The two students returned to the orphanage together in 2004, armed with a video camera and an idea: They would appeal to recording studios in Durban to help the children record a CD, which could be sold to raise funds for the orphanage. The couple, along with some of Taylor’s friends, also started work on a documentary film about the children.

The CD, featuring traditional Zulu songs was recorded over five days, using generously donated studio time and the help of African musician Zwai Bala, who is also a judge on South African Popstars.

On the first day, von Moltke and Taylor said, the children stood quietly after being warned that any movement would be recorded by the sensitive microphones. But by the second day, the children were doing cartwheels as they sang.

Their joy in recording a CD, which is called Thina Simunye, meaning “we are together,” was tinged with sadness. Before the CD was completed, an electrical fire destroyed the orphanage. Although none of the children were harmed in the fire, they were all left homeless. Since the blaze, the children have been living in a shipping container, outfitted with a makeshift kitchen. The fire made von Moltke’s vow even more urgent.

Shortly afterwards, the older brother of a 12-year-old AGAPE orphan succumbed to AIDS. On the same day, a concert tour to England the children had been planning was cancelled due to a lack of funds.

“It was a low point for the children,” von Moltke said.

Then in March, the New York City-based charity Keep A Child Alive got involved with another charity and flew six of the AGAPE orphans to New York City to perform and raise money for the orphanage. In New York, the children met Alicia Keys, an ambassador for Keep A Child Alive, and sang at the TriBeca Film Festival.

“Everyone in the audience was crying,” von Moltke said. “It was pouring and one girl started breakdancing on stage, she was so excited. It was a beautiful moment.”

Taylor filmed the performance for the documentary film he hopes to edit over the winter holidays and release in January. He and von Moltke followed the children around New York City with their cameras, as the children acted as official ambassadors for Keep A Child Alive and raised money to rebuild their orphanage. They appeared on Good Morning America, EXTRA! and were featured in The New York Times, raising awareness for the 12 million orphans of AIDS living in Africa.

The children returned home to KwaZulu-Natal with more than $64,000 to begin rebuilding their orphanage. The plans for the new home include a central building with cooking facilities, bathrooms with showers, large dining areas and classrooms.

The plans also include a second phase — eight buildings that surround the central building and each house six to eight orphans and a “house mother,” or parental figure.

The children hope to raise $140,000 for these buildings. Ten of the children are currently in New York City, in conjunction with Keep A Child Alive, fundraising and promoting their CD, which can be bought through the website started by von Moltke and Taylor.

“After I volunteered, I was really worried about their future,” von Moltke said. “But people have been so generous, and the children have all of these opportunities now.”

“Their music has gotten them this far,” Taylor said. “It wasn’t us, it was them and their music…. They’re really very special children.”

For more information on the project, visit the Simunye Project website and the Keep A Child Alive website.

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