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Grannies of South Africa's AIDS orphans look to 'Mama' for support

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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.

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