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Alternative to adoption bleak for African orphans

From Jeff Koinange
CNN
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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (CNN) -- Twelve-year-old Koketso Motshoane is just one of many millions of children in Africa orphaned by AIDS. She has five other siblings scattered across various orphanages whom she gets to see just once a year.

She's never heard of pop star Madonna but says she'd jump at the chance to be adopted by anyone willing to give her a home, celebrity or not.

"I would feel happy," she says. "Because I have no mother." (Watch Koketso Motshoane describe her feelings on adoption -- 3:38 Video)

But some child-welfare activists are up in arms when it comes to celebrities canvassing the continent in search of orphaned babies.

Koketso lives in an orphanage along with 58 other children between 12 weeks and 21 years old in Johannesburg. It's run by Gail Johnson, a white South African who adopted a black child she named Thabo Jeffrey Johnson after she found him abandoned in a warehouse five years ago on Christmas morning.

This is her second black adoption. Her first child died of AIDS when he was only 12 years old. (Watch Madonna visit African orphans -- 1:30 Video)

Johnson has two biological children, now in their 30s, but she believes she has the right to offer the best care she can to children abandoned or orphaned.

"It would freak me out to give him up, but if there's a young couple who want him or a black couple who want him, I would hand him over," she says.

Johnson sympathizes with Madonna and other celebrities who've adopted African babies, saying cross-cultural and cross-continental adoption is fine as long as it's done in a genuine manner.

"The bottom line if someone wants to and it's sincere, it's not a publicity stunt or whatever -- why not?" she says. "If you look at Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, he's adopted her two little ones prior to her having her own in Namibia. Now that's sincerity as far as I'm concerned."

But dozens of Malawi's human rights groups are taking legal action as a boy that Madonna is trying to adopt there, 13-month-old David Banda, has been flown out of the country accompanied by her bodyguard.

Malawian law prohibits adoptions by non-residents. Typically people who want to adopt must spend 18 months in the country being evaluated by child welfare workers.

But Madonna was granted custody last week due to what her lawyers called "special circumstances."

Eye of the Child, the group that is spearheading the legal fight, expresses a fear that exceptions made for celebrities could open the door for child traffickers.

Other charities are delighted that Madonna has publicized the plight of some 900,000 orphans in Malawi. She also has pledged $3 million to help the country's orphans, and her charity, Raising Malawi, is setting up an orphan center.

In South Africa, Lynne Cawood of rights group Childline says the adoption issue "has to be handled sensitively."

"The whole issue of intercultural adoption, whether a white child in a black family or a black child in a white family, is a very controversial one," says Cawood.

"Very often, children's identities get formed within their family, and where children identify themselves as different from their biological families, that is an issue that that child has to grapple with and come to terms with," she says.

Johnson insists the alternative is bleak because the number of children in Africa losing parents to AIDS is growing and adoption, though a last resort, is the only option. (Watch why the boy's father turned him over to the orphanage -- 2:30 Video)

"I get quite a lump when I try and visualize a little one going to bed with nothing and I can't. It hurts too much because it's wrong," she says.

Cawood agrees. "We would rather have a good home overseas than no home in Africa."

CNN's Paula Hancocks contributed to this report.


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Koketso Motshoane, right, says she would jump at the chance to be adopted by someone, anyone.

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