LEPOLESA, Lesotho - In years past, Alina Molaoa would have spent May harvesting corn from her fields and vegetables from her garden. This year, the cornfields lie fallow; the garden is a dusty patch of dirt. Barely able to stand, she cannot work the land.
Her story is the story of much of this southern African country: Molaoa, a 47-year-old widow, is weakened by AIDS. And the country, where one in three adults is infected by HIV, lacks enough able-bodied farm workers to plant or harvest its crops. More and more of the money once earmarked for seeds and fertilizer is being diverted to medical care and funeral feasts.
"For crop production, you need able-bodied people," said Keketso Sefeane, the new head of a national AIDS office that, nearly two years after it was proposed, has yet to begin work. "With the pandemic, the labor previously available - if it's sick - it means that land is not being cultivated."
In the best of times, Lesotho (Le-SOO-too) grows only half the food it consumes. But this is also the fourth year in a row with erratic rains, affecting the 70 percent of the population that relies on agriculture for its livelihood.
In parts of the country, a United Nations study conducted this year found, nearly a quarter of all households were losing at least three months of labor a year to AIDS and related chronic diseases. Another U.N. survey found that half of the country's farm families were short of labor because of "chronic illness." The country's AIDS orphans account for 5 percent of the population.
The most desperate people, the U.N. says, are begging, skipping meals and eating food found in the wild. The U.N.'s World Food Program is feeding 120,000 Lesotho residents a month - half as many as it could feed if the agency had greater resources here.
Cultural factors are exacerbating the effect of AIDS on farming. Women traditionally are responsible for tending the fields, but women caring for the chronically ill and the dying cannot also farm.
Other restrictions become significant after a death. A woman mourning a husband or son is not supposed to return immediately to farming. Tradition also holds that farmers should not go back into the fields soon after the death of a fellow villager, at the risk of courting bad luck.
There are few statistics about the drop in farm production, but the government and the United Nations agree that the problem is growing more serious and being compounded by other issues.
Since January, Lesotho's fledgling garment industry has been battered by the United States' lifting its quotas on imports of cheaper Chinese goods. About 7,000 of 50,000 textile factory jobs have been lost. At the same time, South Africa's gold mines are laying off thousands of workers - many of them men from Lesotho who are heading home. The drop in incomes from the loss of jobs leaves even less money for buying food.
About a third of miners are believed to be infected by HIV, and their return home could spread the virus further. Because most garment workers are women, some who have lost jobs might turn to prostitution - another way the virus spreads.
Adam Weimer, the World Food Program's AIDS coordinator here, pointed to fallow land as he drove from the capital, Maseru, into a countryside of craggy buttes and mountains looming over broad valleys.
"Look to your left," he said, passing land overgrown by wild grass and where young herders cloaked in blankets watched over cows and sheep. "Those are fields that weren't planted." Nearby, tall grass shrouded an abandoned cornfield, the stalks withered and gray.
The village of Lepolesa, where Molaoa lives in a two-room stone house overlooking a ravine, lies about 50 miles southwest of the capital. It would be a peaceful spot for Molaoa if she felt any peace.
"I'm feeling very weak at the moment," she said between coughs. "My life is quite difficult because I cannot go out for myself to do anything. I don't have anyone who earns income in the family."
Her husband, a miner, died nearly 10 years ago, and she began working odd jobs and growing food for her three children, before the birth of a fourth in 2001.
Molaoa said she fell ill in 2003 and stopped growing food. As drought dried up the soil, she saw no point in trying to rent the land. Her 25-year-old daughter is unemployed. Her older sons, 20 and 18, are looking for work in South Africa.
Her plight is not uncommon in this village of 5,000. "It's so painful to see," said Sekautu Sekautu, its 32-year old chief. "Many people are being left behind, especially kids who look after the household. Many fields are left fallow with no people to plow them."
Also, many families are being left in debt. Tradition calls for slaughtering a cow at a funeral, and family members borrow heavily to give a dead loved one the traditional sendoff.
Mads Lofvall, deputy country director here for the World Food Program, expressed concern about Lesotho's limited efforts to treat people infected with HIV. The country was to have 28,000 people on anti-retroviral medicines by the end of this year. Only about 10 percent of the number are receiving them.
"There seems to be no urgency in this society," Lofvall said,
A bill to create the national AIDS commission that would set a national AIDS strategy has languished in Lesotho's parliament since late 2003, and Sefeane was only recently hired as its director.
He acknowledged that creation of the commission has gone slowly, given that Lesotho's leaders have declared AIDS a "national disaster."
But "the government is doing its level best," he said.
"If you are sick," he added, "you become worse if you are no longer economically active. Nutrition worsens, and you have to think positive and be engaged in something."