Independent Appeal: Africa's lost generation

A 74-year-old woman struggles to feed her eight orphaned grandchildren: it is a story sadly typical in a continent ravaged by Aids. Basildon Peta reports from Mzimba in Malawi

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

8. Lunch on the House, Frances Ford £970

9. Dog Day Afternoon, Paul Richardson £670

10. First Night, Giles Woodward £1,571

11. On the Beaches, Simon Moran £2,100

12. Adventure on the High Seas, Katharine Everett £1,531

13. Back to the Wall, Paul Richardson £1,220

14. Blur Crazy with Alex James, Simon Tuttle £1,120

15. Family Album, Declan Monaghan £1,120

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

21. Wheels on Fire, James Bradley £670

22. The Yasmin Feast, David Durnford-Slater £1,070

23. The Make-up Makeover, David Fisher £510

24. Absolutely Frankellous, Philip Cadiz £1,620

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

33. Bite the Big Apple, Paul Birkett £311

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

39. Eminent Figure, Kevin McGrother £511

40. Going to Seeds, James Ward £560

41. Take the Plunge, Arthur Van Hoogstraten £2,200

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas