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.

Danna Harman
Relief: Ingrid Moloi (l.) leads a support group for grandmothers of AIDS orphans in South Africa.
Danna Harman
Nurtured: Members of a support group for grandmothers of AIDS orphans gathered recently for a "New Years" feast in Johannesburg.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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