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Days before Mother's Day, African, Canadian grandmothers gather in Swaziland to fight AIDS

MANZINI, Swaziland (AP) — Eunice Vilakati is everybody's grandmother in her neighborhood.

Not only is she caring for her own two granddaughters orphaned last year, but a changing number of neighbors' children also come to the widow in this nation devastated by the AIDS epidemic.

"When you arrive at my place you can be mistaken that all these children are my children," she said as she joined grandmothers from across Africa days before Mother's Day to share advice and support.

The U.N. children's organization puts the number of orphans in this country of about 1 million at 100,000, largely due to AIDS and the virus that causes it. The U.N. says HIV prevalence in impoverished Swaziland is nearly 40 percent, the highest in the world.

Aylwen Dlamini, from a Swazi grandmother's group, said, "Grandmothers are forced to provide home-based care for the sick, they also support immediate neighbors in case of illness and HIV counseling."

The Stephen Lewis Foundation, named for and led by a former U.N. envoy for AIDS in Africa, provides money for housing and schooling for children orphaned by AIDS and helps people living with AIDS and HIV.

At an opening ceremony for the grandmothers' gathering, Elizabeth Rennie of Canada's Ubuntu Grand Women organization, said: "Canadian grandmothers are the voice of African women in Canada. We're here to learn from our African peers by listening, caring and learning, and won't rest until the African story is told."

She said the aim of the gathering in Swaziland on the eve of Mother's Day was to pay tribute to grandmothers and their courage in the face of the AIDS pandemic.

Swaziland's queen mother, Ntombi Twala, said at the opening ceremony that Swazi grandmothers were ready to learn from their counterparts from around the world about how to tackle HIV and AIDS.

Vilakati, the Swazi grandmother, was open and friendly at the gathering Friday, greeting strangers like friends.

She cooks and sells food and collects bottles for recycling to feed her family. She said she also has sought training at a clinic because so many of her neighbors rely on her for advice about AIDS. And some, she said, have died in her arms.