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Grannies of South Africa's AIDS orphans look to 'Mama' for support

Ingrid Moloi runs a support group for grandmothers of AIDS orphans in a poor township in Johannesburg.

By Danna HarmanCorrespondent / January 2, 2008

Relief: Ingrid Moloi (l.) leads a support group for grandmothers of AIDS orphans in South Africa.

Danna Harman

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Alexandra, South Africa

The golden years. A time to relax. Maybe even indulge in a few luxuries. That's what these grannies dreamed of, but circumstances have been unkind.

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Of the more than 11 million African children who lost parents to AIDS-related illnesses in the past decade, according to the UN, 40 to 60 percent are cared for by grandmothers.

Here in one of South Africa's poorest townships, Ingrid Moloi decided to help lessen the burden they face. For a handful of grannies – or go-gos as they're called here – her support group has become a lifeline.

"These meetings are about talking about what's inside our hearts," says Tabitha Mokoena, who has eight orphan grandchildren ranging from age 3 to 20 sleeping on the floors of her two-room shack.

"Sometimes when I start to talk, I cry," says Ms. Mokoena. "We all start to cry … about the stresses in our hearts. I don't know how these children will grow up."

Ms. Moloi, 33 years old, is unlikely to become a grandmother. Raped by her father at age 12, she contracted HIV and, a few years ago, was on her deathbed.

But, then, she says, her body began to respond to treatment. She gained weight, got up on her feet, stopped coughing, combed her brittle hair into a fashionable do, and came to Friends for Life, a local nongovernmental organization, for counseling. Soon, she became a volunteer counselor herself. "I feel," she reflects, " … like I asked God for a second chance at life, and when he gave it to me, I needed to make a difference."

Moloi soon realized that not only the sick needed help, but so did their caretakers. And that, five years ago, is when she put a small notice on the community center bulletin board, calling for a grannies get together.

The go-gos meet twice a week. On Wednesdays they go to a nearby vegetable garden and plant together, dividing and taking home what they manage to grow – a small but invaluable supplement to diets consisting mostly of cornmeal.

And on Fridays, they gather at the Friends for Life offices, pull plastic chairs into a circle and, guided by Moloi, speak about events of the week at home.

Sometimes someone has advice about how to help kids with homework, or how to maneuver through government bureaucracy to apply for orphan grants ($33 a child a month). Mostly though, they just offer each other empathy and friendship.

Moloi, boisterous, loving, dramatic and irritable all at once, does not let any conversation here become too bogged down in self-pity. "Please, please, let's not forget how strong we are," she repeats like a mantra.

Today is the grannies' New Year's party, and the go-gos are dressed in their finest for a feast provided by Moloi. Mokoena wears a fancy traditional hat. Johanna Mlambo sports a necklace of broken pearls that her employer gave her. Tryphina Sibiya – the self-anointed babe of the crowd – has come in fishnet stockings. "These were expensive stockings. But I don't want to look old," she explains, flipping her short hair.