The food shortage ravaging Southern Africa is being compounded by the prevalence there of the AIDS epidemic. VOA's Challis McDonough has more from the town of Monkey Bay in southeastern Malawi.

Growing up on her small farming village on the shores of Lake Malawi, Margaret Mphonde never imagined she would still be taking care of small children when she was in her 60's. But since her daughter died of AIDS in 1996, she has been doing exactly that - raising three grandchildren.

"Four of my children have died; only one is still alive," she said. "So now we are busy taking care of their children, my grandchildren. We do not have enough time to go into the fields while we are looking after these little ones."

Mrs. Mphonde and her husband say they have not had a really good harvest since their daughter died. But this year's crop was worse than usual. She gestures toward her nearly empty granary and says it will probably last less than a month and a half.

"This maize just will not last long, and after that, we will be in trouble. We do not know where we will get food," she said.

Health workers say AIDS-affected families are particularly vulnerable to starvation and malnutrition in times of famine. First, people who are already weakened by disease are less able to cope with the lack of food. Second, healthy family members - like Mrs. Mphonde - are often too busy caring for sick relatives or orphaned children, to find time to work in the fields or search for food.

According to U.N. statistics, roughly one in seven Malawians is HIV positive. In other parts of southern Africa, the numbers are even higher - up to one in four in some countries.

Most people who die of AIDS-related illnesses are between the ages of 15 and 49. The epidemic is devastating many parts of the region's economy, as teachers, nurses, doctors and civil servants succumb to the disease.

In Malawi, where 70 percent of the population relies on subsistence farming, the people who should be growing the country's food are no longer there.

Ellard Malindi is the permanent secretary in the Malawi ministry of agriculture.

"We know the people who are mainly dying directly from HIV-related diseases are the productive ones. So, in a household, yes, definitely, we would expect it to affect adversely the labor supply," she explained. "So, yes, it has a direct impact on food production."

Bad weather contributed to the current food crisis in southern Africa, as it did to the last regional famine in 1992. Experts believe the drought of the early 90's was actually worse than the flooding and dry spells this time around. But in Malawi, most people say the food shortage this time has been much worse.

Many foreign aid workers believe AIDS has crippled families' abilities to cope with a bad harvest.

Health workers say they fear the situation will only get worse as time goes on. Tom McCormack heads the local office of the U.S.-based charity Save the Children.

"More and more, the cumulative effects of HIV / AIDS are becoming evident?. We find that [peoples'] ability to cope is shrinking as time goes on, at least that is my impression. I think that is going to be more true in the future than it is now even," he said. "So these same conditions that we find today as far as bad weather and difficulty growing food, if this same thing happens years from now it is going to be a much worse problem than it is today."

Back in the village, Mrs. Mphonde says she and her husband have gotten too old to work in their fields the way they used to.

"While my children were still alive, they sometimes gave us money so we could hire someone to help in the fields," she says, "but since they passed away I have not been able to afford to get any help."

But still she and her husband struggle on, trying to find a way to feed her grandchildren. For now, they are trying to make their meager maize harvest last a little longer by only eating one meal a day.