SITHOBELA, Swaziland, Feb 24 (Reuters) Dreaming of leafy spinach and rows of juicy beetroot, 13-year-old Cinisile Mamba yanks withered weeds from the ground and prepares to plant.
Life has not been kind to Mamba. Her parents died of AIDS before passing on crucial farming skills, leaving her to care for three younger siblings in a country ravaged by five years of drought.
''I want to grow spinach and beetroot to feed my brother and sisters but I don't know how,'' she told Reuters not far from her simple hut in Swaziland's parched lowlands.
This year she might just harvest the vegetables she craves.
Along with 24 other children from her community, Mamba is attending a United Nations farm school which teaches those orphaned by AIDS the basic skills of survival - skills their parents were unable to pass on.
''As parents die early they are leaving a knowledge gap,'' said Khumbi Chinonge, who heads the farm school project. ''How will these children continue if they can't grow food and take care of themselves?'' Swaziland has the world's highest rate of HIV/AIDS, which is killing key workers and whittling away the tiny country's capacity to deal with a drought that has left some 10 to 12 million people in southern Africa dependent on food aid.
Around a quarter of Swaziland's 1 million people rely on the United Nations' World Food Programme and many families in Sithobela eat just one basic meal of corn or rice a day.
LAND PESTS, LIFE PESTS The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) launched the junior farmer field and life schools in Mozambique in 2003 and has since opened schools in Kenya, Namibia and Zambia, targeting some 1,000 young people between the ages of 12 and 18.
FAO has now launched the first phase of the project in Swaziland, starting with five sites but with plans to eventually reach 30,000 orphans at 1,250 schools.
Official figures put the number of AIDS orphans in Swaziland at 80,000 although aid workers say the figure is probably closer to 100,000.
The chief and elders of the Sihlangwini community in Sithobela have given Mamba and her fellow pupils a field to use for their studies and picked the community's best farmer to teach them how to coax food from the rain-starved soil.
Phineas Magagula was the only farmer in the area to produce a decent maize crop this year after he created a makeshift irrigation system with 4 km (2.5 miles) of rubber tubing.
''I am famous for my farming skills so I was chosen to teach the children,'' he said with a grin.
The programme combines farming skills with lessons on personal hygiene, money management and, crucially, about the dangers of HIV in a country where some 40 percent of adults are infected with the virus that causes AIDS.
''When we teach about getting rid of pests that destroy crops we also teach about pests -- like HIV -- that can destroy your life,'' said Chinonge.
SIMPLE TIPS So far the children at Sihlangwini have cleared the land and built fences to keep the bony livestock that roam the area away from their crops. They start planting over the next few weeks.
Magagula said a few simple tips on farming could make the difference between a failed and successful crop, and said he would teach the children how to make the best of the land in an area where almost every stream and river has run dry.
''At the moment people try and grow maize but it is hard to grow - I will teach them to grow sorghum, which is easier, and then vegetables, for better nutrition.'' Mamba, whose skinny arms poke from a torn and grubby T-shirt, says the highlight of her twice-weekly sessions at the farm school is lunch, which is provided free by the WFP.
One of the main aims of the farm school project is to wean children like Mamba - who is entirely dependent on WFP provisions to feed herself, two sisters and one brother - off handouts and help them become self-sufficient.
Chinonge hopes successful pupils will stay longer than the initial year-long course and learn to become commercial farmers, then possibly teachers for future schools.
''It's an old saying but teaching a man to fish is better than giving him a fish,'' he said.
Swaziland's King Mswati III, - sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, - appealed in his state of the kingdom speech this month for donors to give more to help tackle HIV, which analysts fear could threaten the tiny nation's existence.
Aid workers are loath to criticise the young monarch in public but many say privately that perhaps the king would contribute more to the fight against HIV if he did not insist on wedding a new young bride every year. He now has 13 wives.
Magagula, 42, says that after years of working the land, teaching teenagers about sex came as a shock.
But despite receiving no salary for the twice-weekly classes on farming and health issues, he says passing on this kind of information is vital to save his community.
''We want to help them over the bridge from adolescence to adulthood,'' he said.
REUTERS SB SND1045