The widowed Gogo (SiSwati for "granny") Thwala, 72, lives a life that relies heavily on her survival skills as she single-handedly raises three grandchildren, but not a trace of resignation or despair clouds her smile.
"Yes, when the Lord took my son and his wife, and I was left with two little girls and a boy to look after, it was hard to go back to work but I am not without my resources!" said Thwala.
Her small hillside farm on communal Swazi Nation Land in Elwandle is only five kilometres south of the country's main commercial hub, Manzini, but few visitors tread the stony goat paths to reach it and she might as well be living in a remote rural village.
Stones are the bane of farming Thwala's small plot, where nothing grew last year because of drought. "Look now, how the maize is high!" said Thwala, the sweep of her hand showing a field of healthy, bright green maize stalks standing tall under blue skies.
Those skies have yielded consistent rain without any ruinous hailstorms so far this year. "With this crop I can feed these children. I can sell some extra for their school needs," she said.
Inside one of two mud huts on the property she opened a sewing kit and set to mending one of her granddaughter's school uniform skirts, which must again see service when the new academic year starts next week.
Thwala's two granddaughters are classified as orphaned and vulnerable children (OVC), and therefore eligible for government payment of their school fees. Her grandson, 5, will also qualify when he is old enough to attend primary school.
Although slow and backed by insufficient funding, the government's welfare services are gradually shifting from an almost exclusive focus on OVC to recognise the needs of their elderly and often desperately poor caregivers.
|I never thought I would have to raise children again. I thought that part of my life was over. But what can I do?|
"I never thought I would have to raise children again. I thought that part of my life was over. But what can I do? What can these children do without me? I love them, and being with them helps soothe the loss I feel at the death of my son and his wife," said Thwala.
Mkuluza Zwane, director of the Umtfunti Old Age Association, finds Thwala's attitude commendable, but rare. "So many of these elderly are simply worn out by the burdens they face in their old age. By custom, they are supposed to be supported at this time ... by their children. Now, because of the AIDS crisis, government must step in and provide such support. It's a matter of humanity and respect for our older generation."
Zwane's association has lobbied government to increase its monthly pension for the elderly and last year succeeded in obtaining about US$30 per retired person, up from a paltry $15 a month.
"No one can live on that, but it is supplementary income, based on a belief that there still is some sort of family support. Most elderly are not homeless. In Swaziland, the extended family can still be found to assist, and neighbours."
However, some elderly people are truly alone, a recent phenomenon caused by the social upheaval wrought by AIDS. In his policy speech earlier this month, Prime Minister Themba Dlamini mentioned government's desire to improve the lot of the elderly, and acknowledged the plight of pension recipients who had to travel long distances to receive their monthly cheques.
For ailing people forced to endure daylong bus trips, collecting government allowances is a mixed blessing. Although Swaziland's cash-strapped government is unlikely to further increase stipends for the elderly, Dlamini promised action to facilitate payments.
The Queen Mother, who by tradition rules in conjunction with her son, King Mswati III, has set up a charity called Phila EmaSwati to provide assistance to the elderly. Last winter they distributed donated clothing and blankets, but the government has not provided funding for more extensive programmes.
While there is universal agreement that the elderly are essential to mitigate the effects of the AIDS epidemic, their needs are not high on the agendas of non-governmental organisations, other than the Umtfunti Old Age Association.
"In Swaziland there are only a few orphanages. It is the [extended] families who look after their orphaned relations, and this means…it is the grannies who are doing the work of the social welfare institutions," said Wilma Bhembe, a welfare worker in Manzini.
"They must be supported. If not, what will the children do, and what will we do with the children? It is not enough to give children emergency food rations and pay their school fees."
Despite its poverty, the nation prides itself on its fidelity to traditional African values, including respect for family and tribal elders. But this week many Swazis were jolted into realising they were in danger of losing this part of their heritage.
Real estate developers in the upscale suburb Ezulwini, on the eastern edge of the capital, Mbabane, unveiled plans for Swaziland's first retirement community. Although intended for unusually affluent retired people, the gated housing estate struck many people as unSwazi and somehow threatening to a national way of life.
"This place is apartheid for the aged. It is for foreign countries where they want to shut off their old people. We love and honour our elders, and we want them with us in our family circle every day," said James Mhlongo, a handicraft vendor at one of Ezulwini's tourist hotels. "But, maybe if this place makes us think about our old folks we will do more to keep them with us."