All five of Esther Nthala's children have died of Aids. So has every one of their spouses. At the age of 74, she has been left with eight children to care for. Esther is, this Christmas, the icon of a new style of Madonna and Child – grandmother and orphan, as Africa comes to terms with a missing generation.
Every day, just after the roosters crow in this dusty medieval-looking town in the north of Malawi, Esther wakes up to begin a hectic process of mixing a jelly-like lotion she claims to be a hair straightener. The nameless white product is a complicated mixture of cake flour, coasting soda and bathing soap and other secret ingredients.
As Mzimba bursts into life, she places a 25-litre bucket of her homemade concoction on a stall outside her mud dwelling and waits.
Her customers are mostly young female fashion enthusiasts whose pockets are not deep enough to afford Dark and Lovely or any other of the big-name brands.
In a good week, Esther sells enough of the concoction to buy a solitary packet of maize meal, from which she makes the thick porridge that has been the staple diet of her family of orphans since the last of their mothers died last year.
Some days the orphans – who range in age from two to 13 – all eat. Some days, when no one buys her hair lotion, none of them do.
But often she has enough for only half the family. So she feeds the youngest, and the older ones have to wait in the hope that the day after they will be luckier. At least such staggering ensures that no one starves to death.
Esther is far from alone. She is one of a multitude of weary grandmothers who, instead of relaxing into retirement, now find themselves the active heads of families of young orphans in this Aids-ravaged community of about 80,000 where everyone knows someone who is living with HIV.
"It's heart-wrenching," says Rose Nkana, the executive director of a local self-help group called Kaphuta People Living with HIV/Aids.
"The average grandmother has at least five or six orphans. In some cases it is even more – as many as 10 or 11 orphans per grandmother."
Down the road, four-year-old Vitumbiko Kamanga is more fortunate. Until two years ago, the little girl's mother, Lillian, had given up all hope after her husband contracted Aids and she was diagnosed as HIV-positive. Then help came from Kaphuta – which is backed by One World Action, one of the three charities that this year's Independent Christmas Appeal is supporting.
Kaphuta supplied the Kamanga family with anti-retroviral drugs which reinvigorated their emaciated frames and gave them a new lease of life.
The support group has also helped Lilian by giving her the local equivalent of £10 to buy the ingredients she needed to make doughnuts she could sell at bus terminals.
Lilian belongs to the new generation of people living with HIV/Aids who have taken full advantage of the Malawi government's aggressive roll-out of anti-retroviral drugs – made possible by the massive increases in aid to combat Aids pledged by the leaders of the rich world at Gleneagles.
"If my husband hadn't been in denial and also tested and got on to [anti-retrovirals] early, he could still be alive," says Lillian.
Work on encouraging testing and helping people accept their HIV status is a key component of Kaphuta's focus on saving lives.
When Gilbert Kayaza, a timber salesman, fell sick with tuberculosis and subsequently tested positive for HIV, he did not have the guts to tell his wife, Qwima.
"I asked myself what she would think of me," he says. His 19-year-old wife also fell sick and he encouraged her to go for testing. Her return with the bad news made life easier for him, he says.
"I told her that if she was positive, it meant I was also positive. It relieved me the pressure of breaking the news to her."
But when their one-year-old daughter, Gloria, proved to be HIV-positive,Gilbert – who admits to having lived a reckless life and bringing the disease into the family – became determined to live long enough to look after the baby.
He dropped what he calls his "bad boy habits" and went to Kaphuta to secure the anti-retroviral drugs.
The family are thriving and are now keen members of Kaphuta's local support group, which encourages testing in the local population and mobilises support for those who prove positive. "A problem shared is half solved," says Gilbert.
The group encourages its members to become masters of their destinies by living positive and healthy lifestyles. Because the antiretroviral drugs do not work effectively without good nutrition, Kaphuta has also set up farming projects that are run by its members to enable them to supplement their diet.
One World Action has channelled grants for piggery, poultry and other projects run by people living with HIV/Aids as well as training projects to ensure effective home-based care for patients and to deliver educational activities about the disease.
Bringing victims to live together, pray together, eat together and work on projects together, all helps with the de-stigmatisation of Aids victims, explains Ms Nkana, the Kaphuta executive director.
The people of Malawi are fortunate in having a government which is acting aggressively in the fight against Aids. In neighbouring Zimbabwe, money from the Global Aids Fund was suspended because of corruption by the cronies of the President, Robert Mugabe. In South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, who once bizarrely questioned the link between HIV and Aids, pursued Aids-related policies that cost more than 350,000 lives, according to a Harvard study.
But in Malawi, under President Bingu wa Mutharika, is supplying about 200,000 poor Aids patients with free antiretroviral drugs.
One of Kaphuta's key roles is to mobilise large numbers of people living with HIV/Aids into a powerful community to press for the interests of its members.
It has been calling for the provision of antiretrovirals to at least another 100,000 sufferers.
Even that is only a start in a country where it is estimated that one in every four citizens is HIV-positive.
Back in Mzimba, the grandmother with the eight young orphans in her care needs help too. Although her years of life have visibly worn her out and she can no longer walk without the aid of a stick, Esther Nthala's determination to keep her grandchildren alive keeps her going.
"I am now their last line of defence," she says. "I am what separates them between life and death."
With help from readers of The Independent, she feels she can hold that line. Happy Christmas.
Christmas Charity Appeal: Winning Bids
1. A day at the Paper, Anas Hassan £2,000
2. Hix's Hunter-Gathering, Emma Bonnar £1,220
3. Bouquets of Barbed Wire, Callum Knowles £660.00
4. I'll Have What She's Having, Giles Watts £1,031
5. Rambling Tales, Ian Swire £1,730
6. How Does Your Garden Grow?, Adrian Padfield £2,052.02
7. The Axeman Cometh, David Mark Monks £730
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10. First Night, Giles Woodward £1,571
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13. Back to the Wall, Paul Richardson £1,220
14. Blur Crazy with Alex James, Simon Tuttle £1,120
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16. War and Peace, Virginia Batra £2,550
17. Poison Pen, Christopher Hinton £653
18. Hold the Front Page, Pedro Okoro £560
19. Credit Crunch, Bruce Adams £400
20. Room With a View, James Bradley £155
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22. The Yasmin Feast, David Durnford-Slater £1,070
23. The Make-up Makeover, David Fisher £510
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25. Literary Lizards, F Harris £500
26. Call the Toons, Melissa Hipkins £812
27. Let's See Action, Adrian Williams £310
28. Snapped, Giles Meyer £600
29. On the Grapevine, Anas Hassan £620
30. Steel Lives, Emma Spriggs £360
31. Deathless Prose, Hal Jorna £570
32. Starter for Ten, Jennifer Solomons £221
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34. The Agony of it, Alan Hunter £291
35. Fromage Fray, Zoe Dixon-Smith £1,220
36. Meet the Editor, Karl Jaeger £1,002
37. On the Ball, Pedro Okoro £590
38. Cocktails with Claudia Winkleman, Simon Moran £2,450
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40. Going to Seeds, James Ward £560
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