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Friday, 16 August, 2002, 09:31 GMT 10:31 UK
Swaziland gripped by double tragedy
Swazi family
Nomsa Mthembu's family has been hit hard by Aids

The prevalence of Aids in southern Africa is complicating the task of helping the millions of people facing famine.

In the past people have tried to cope with hunger through the strong and traditional African family unit - a structure now under increasing pressure from the Aids pandemic

They are spending their money on medicines instead of food

Mary Ann Marks, WFP

In Swaziland a third of the people are HIV positive and by the end of the year one in five will be dependant on food aid to survive.

There is a huge and growing problem of children orphaned by Aids who have no one to feed them or care for them.

And as more people are affected by food shortages, there is criticism that the government has mishandled the economy and agriculture.

Family graves

Nomsa Mthembu lives in the dry east of Swaziland. Her husband had died from Aids just a few days before I visited.

Her house is made of mud and sticks and is practically falling apart. Behind the house there are five piles of stones - the rough graves of her husband, her sisters and other children.

Swazi graves
Graves of Aids victims

"Life is very difficult. I don't have money to buy anything, but just collect firewood to make a living. I don't have any relatives to help - I have to look after myself," Mrs Mthembu says.

Her child is three years old but looks barely one, with painfully thin legs. He has been sick since he was born.

Aid worker Nhlanhla Motsa is sure the child and its mother both have Aids. Her 16-year-old daughter will be responsible for the family.

"I would say about 65% of people here are affected by both the drought and the HIV disease," Nhlanhla Motsa says.

Mothers' regiment

The World Food Programme has reopened its office in Swaziland to deal with the current crisis. Mary Ann Marks is the emergency co-ordinator.

"This is the biggest complication here for Swaziland - probably more so than any of the other countries. It is affecting 144,000 people at the current time but it is complicated because many, many of the people - 33% of the population - are affected by HIV.

Swazi girls
The tassels are a sign of virginity

"They are spending their money on medicines instead of food. Or worse, the people are dying and leaving behind orphans," she says.

Aids orphans are the biggest challenge facing Swaziland.

"We have at the moment an estimated 40,000 orphans. And by the year 2010 there will be projected 120,000 which will be roughly 15% of the population will be orphans," according to Derick von Wissell, the national director of Nurture, the new government funded emergency response committee on HIV/Aids.

As well as working on Aids prevention, he believes using Swaziland's traditional structures is vital.

"Swaziland has regiments and there is a mothers' regiment - and this regiment is national in all communities.

"By empowering this regiment we think we can create surrogate motherhood structures in every community where mothers can take care of orphaned children and teach them the social values and ethics and things like that."

Young girls at Swazi a ceremony dance in traditional costume - wearing big woollen tassels.

Traditionally maidens wore the tassels to show they were virgins - the custom has been reintroduced to try and delay the age at which girls lose their virginity and so reduce the risk of HIV infection.


There is not a huge swathe of drought hit land in Swaziland. Those who are starving after their crops failed can see lush, green commercial sugar plantations.

Trade union activist Jan Sithole is the nearest the absolute monarchy of Swaziland gets to political opposition.

Old Swazi lady
Old people are hit hard by famine

"It is part of mismanagement of the economy. Yes, they can duck and dive around drought, but there is no self-sufficiency agriculture policy," he says.

While HIV/Aids is destroying the country and there is hunger now, long term food shortages are avoidable.

Maize crops have failed but crops like cassava will not and water is available.

Blame for shortages is falling on the government.

Last week it bought a multi-million dollar aircraft for the king just as international food aid began to arrive.

Key stories

Horn of Africa

Southern Africa

West Africa

Ways to help



See also:

01 Aug 02 | Africa
19 Jul 02 | Africa
07 Jun 02 | Africa
20 Mar 02 | Africa
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