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.
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Ms. Sibiya once had six children – today all but one are dead. She lives with her last remaining son, Thoko, and three orphan grandchildren. Thoko works, she says, but she does not know where. He comes home only to sleep. "He does not help me. I ask him to but he doesn't want to. What can I do?" she asks.Skip to next paragraph
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One o'clock comes and goes but Moloi, who has bought the entire holiday meal out of her own $340-dollar-a-month salary, is running late, foiled by an electricity outage that has interrupted her cooking.
Soon, Sibiya begins to sing, first slowly, and then, her voice rising, she stands up and belts out a Zulu classic: "I will never forget my God." Mlambo joins in, singing alto. Mokoena gets up on her feet and shuffle-dances across the room. Someone yells Hallelujah, and for the next hour, the group sings together, one song stumbling into the next. They wave their arms, and rock side to side in unison, their voices intertwining. "Your child is my child," they melodize. "God is making wonders, he hears our sick children," they croon.
At 3 p.m. Moloi, in her best party dress, rushes in – Friends for Life staff hauling in pots of food and panting behind her. Soon, everyone is seated around a long table, piling massive quantities of rice, fried chicken, beets, and cabbage smothered with mayo onto one another's plates. There is sudden silence as the women tuck in, washing it all down with grape Fanta.
Around the table, two grannies, sick with AIDS, can barely manage to eat a bite. Most of the others can't finish either – scraping leftovers into plastic bags they brought from home.
As the eating frenzy subsides, Moloi stands up to give a blessing. "It is an honor to lead you grannies ... even with all your complaining and crying," she begins, teasing. "I wish there were bigger presents I could give you, but I give you all my respect." The grannies nod and cry out, "Yes."
"Some in our group have died this year, but we remain strong here, together," continues Moloi.
"The grannies of today are not the grannies of yesterday. You are still bathing the children. You are still struggling," says Moloi, her voice rising like a preacher. "I know one day you will go…. I know one day I will go. But we have time now. We must fill that time and work for the children." "Amen," cry the grannies, dabbing away tears.
One by one, the elderly ladies stand and give testimony to the young woman they call Mama. "We tell jokes here, and we laugh," says Sibiya. "This is our only time to reflect. And we thank you Mama, for making this other home for us."
Moloi is beaming. A slow improvised song begins: "Thank you, God, for small pleasures," they all sing.
Over in the corner of the room, Mokoena is snoozing, exhausted from the food and the general excitement.
Soon, she will have to go back to the kids. But for the moment, she is in no hurry.