Baba Sylla: “My dream is to retire Orange Babies”
They were three men operating in the world of fashion who thought they should do something besides their work of photoshoots, catwalks, glamor, and bling-bling. Their agency Orange House, which represented pretty much all the important stylists, make-up artists, but also models in the Netherlands, gave them insufficient satisfaction. They wanted to do something that would make the world a little better. Baba came up with a bright idea.
Born in Senegal, evicted from home at the age of 12 and moved to Paris through his foster parents to study and finally ending up in The Netherlands. He has told this story a hundred times: one day he visited his father in the village where Baba was born. A woman with AIDS asked his father for help and accommodation. Baba prevented his father from helping her, as he was afraid that she would infect the entire family. Later, back in Amsterdam, something started to gnaw. With his partner John Kattenberg and Stef Bakker, he founded Orange Babies, an organization that now celebrates its 20th anniversary and has rescued hundreds of thousands of babies from the widespread HIV virus, in three African countries.
In honor of its anniversary, Sogoodtowear (a non-profit cooperation in the fashion industry) developed a number of special styles in an animal-friendly cashmere blend, the proceeds of which will benefit Orange Babies. Just like Orange Babies, Sogoodtowear is committed to helping the poorest people in the world offering them a prospect for a healthy and decent life.
“It was really killing. Every time I came home I told my friends. It only costs 25 guilders to save a child.”
Baba Sylla: “We should not be celebrating this anniversary. Actually, it is sad that Orange Babies still has to exist. We started twenty years ago in Soweto, the largest slum of Cape Town. 30,000 Babies are born there every year, more than in the whole of the Netherlands in the same time frame. We started a collab with Glenda Gray who ran a clinic for pregnant women infected with HIV. That went against everything. Former president Mbeki at that time simply denied that there was such a thing as HIV in South Africa. It was a conspiracy of white folks to undermine the country. We were portrayed as traitors to our people. All the doctors were white. They accused me of being part of the plot. The medicines we gave were, according to them, to poison the people.”
In the beginning, it was embarrassing how Orange Babies had to get things going with the limited budget (20,000 guilders in the first year).
“There were two hundred pregnant women every morning. We had to decide in the waiting room who we could help and who we had to send home. We chose the people who were physically in the worst shape. The sicker you are, the more likely you are to transmit HIV to your baby. The rest we had to send home. You may stay, you have to go. Terrible, terrible. There are people who beg to be helped. It was killing me. Every time I came home I told my friends. It only costs 25 guilders to save a child. “
It caught on. World-famous models, make-up artists, fashion designers and stylists participated for free in the first gala organized by Orange babies. Famous Dutch people, who still work for them as ambassadors, volunteered.
“Within ten years, the number of HIV babies had fallen from 35% to below 2%. A huge success.”
“After a few years, we already had 13 clinics in Soweto where we tested people for HIV. If you were positive, you were sent to Baragwanath Hospital (one of the largest hospitals in the world in Johannesburg) for medication. For the woman who tested negative (so without HIV), we had a complete program to ensure that they remained negative. We also had incentives for the participants. Every time a woman came to the clinic they received a food package, also after the birth of the child. Teams of ours also operated in the Bara hospital. They made sure people started taking their medication.”
Many people have no work in Soweto. They then hang out in a community Center or bar during the day. Baba Sylla therefore came up with to establish so-called milk bars. Baba: “The mothers were able to get free baby milk there. We were able to inform them and test them again. Just like we made sure that HIV positive women were taking their medication regularly. In the beginning, many people thought it was very difficult to introduce HIV therapy in Africa because Africans are very loose with time. But I think that is such a cliche! Every pregnant woman wants to protect her unborn baby from the HIV virus. We have shown that that group is doing great.”
“Five hundred thousand babies born without HIV. That is a result that I am extremely proud of. Orange babies also helped hundreds of boys and girls to study at a university. We have sheltered many women who were expelled by their families due to AIDS in shelters that we built for that purpose. We took care of their identity papers because they no longer existed on paper. We have also built schools, orphanages and maternity clinics. Before our women were in normal hospitals: the maternity ward was separated by a curtain from the ward for tuberculosis patients. The percentage of infant mortality was high but it has fallen enormously since. Within ten years, the number of HIV babies had fallen from 35% to below 2%. A huge success that we later copied to other countries, Namibia and Zambia. “
The Sogoodtowear project also gives people the opportunity to contribute to Orange Babies and get something nice in return.
“Fundraising is certainly not easy. At the end of the nineties, everyone was getting tired of talking about AIDS. Also, many people said: it’s their own fault, they should protect themselves if they have sex. We try to raise funds in our own way as much as possible. We organize bicycle tours in Africa where people also do volunteer work for Orange Babies. We organize tailor-made projects for companies, they can build an orphanage or a new clinic. We also have regular donors where you can save a baby with a few euros per month. “
“The Sogoodtowear collab also gives people the opportunity to contribute to Orange Babies and get something nice in return. A warm cashmere sweater, a hat or a luxurious scarf. The items that Sogoodtowear developed for Orange Babies are very suitable as a holiday gift. All the proceeds go to Orange Babies and you provide a bit of employment in a completely different part of the world.”
“I am 55. The year 2032 was chosen by the UN as the end of HIV / AIDS. I’m going to reach that. At 68 I can stop. What will the next twelve years look like? We prefer to be finished earlier and ensure that a new generation without HIV is ready. My ultimate dream is that we can retire this organization. If someone who is positive starts taking medication, after three months he or she will no longer be measurably HIV positive and will no longer be able to transmit the virus. If everyone gets medication, they cannot continue to be infected. The only thing that is needed is to test the people and to ensure that there are enough medicines.
Baba Sylla is a great optimist: “Sometimes I think: what am I doing? and my heart sinks. Then I go running or I put on loud music and start dancing. Or I indulge in the beautiful, good stories about what we have achieved there. That children say “Uncle Baba”, children who have survived thanks to us, then I know: that is the reason to continue. “