Grandmothers-to-Grandmothers Forges Bonds in Africa

A group of grandparents reaches out to help alleviate an HIV/AIDS epidemic.

By Judith Penner

If you ever doubt the power of grandparents, think of Africa. Grandparents — but grandmothers, particularly — are Africa’s great hope.

I saw that so clearly on a recent visit to sub-Saharan Africa. So that when my granddaughter didn't call me as soon as I got home, I was a bit let down. Her cell phone had fallen out of her pocket. She wiped out while skateboarding; she broke her glasses; she was mad at her math teacher. I wasn’t sure at first how to connect my sense of urgency about Africa with my granddaughter's struggle to survive age 14, but I soon realized how lucky we both are that her life is full of ordinary teenage preoccupations. She still needs me, but not all the time.

In Africa, grandmothers can’t be taken for granted because they are essential to the survival of 13 million children orphaned in the AIDS pandemic. To get some idea of that almost ungraspable number, consider that 13 million is the combined population of New York City and Los Angeles. Orphanages are not part of African culture; orphans look to family members to take them in, and since many of their parents' generation have died of AIDS, it’s grandmothers who look after 40 to 60 percent of them. Without grandparents, children are often left to fend for themselves.

The Grandmothers-to-Grandmothers Campaign

Last fall I jumped at the chance to apply for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit projects started by Africans to help grandmothers take care of AIDS orphans, projects funded largely by people like you and me. In the spring of 2008, twelve of us Canadian grandmothers, all healthy, seasoned travelers with a strong commitment to talk and write about what we learned, were lucky enough to meet some of these African women.

We represented 5,000 grandmothers who were at home raising money for the Grandmothers-to-Grandmothers Campaign, which was launched by the Toronto-based Stephen Lewis Foundation (SLF) in 2006. I had read Lewis’s book about the African AIDS pandemic, Race Against Time, and heard him speak about it with his characteristic intelligence, passion, and inspiring concern. As a grandmother myself I felt an immediate connection with the grandmothers in Africa he described. So much depended on their resilience and willingness to shoulder responsibility for their orphaned grandchildren, yet as a group they had been largely ignored.

I joined one of the many small Gogo groups (gogo is Zulu for "grandmother") that sprang up all over the country, and by the fall of 2007 was planning a fund-raiser in my own community. I was inspired by the idea that even small efforts could make a difference. A friend offered her house for a Winter Cheer party, and suddenly lots of people were helping. Professional musicians played free and everyone brought food. Friends and acquaintances from all over the city — and in true Canadian fashion, of many ethnic backgrounds — came and sang, laughed, celebrated together, and opened their hearts and their check books. It was a great party and we raised more than $6,000. By now, two years after the launch of the campaign, more than 200 small groups like ours have collectively raised about $4 million.

Everywhere we went on our trip, we found our hands clasped in genuine welcome. Three teams of four visited different SLF-funded, community-based projects in Uganda and South Africa. Then we all came together in the tiny country of Swaziland, which has one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the world. We heard our African counterparts tell their stories and celebrated their newly established rights as adult human beings, rights that American women won a century ago.

Numbing numbers

It’s very difficult to grasp the extent of the AIDS pandemic. Of the 33 million infected worldwide (that’s about the population of Canada), 22.5 million live in 15 sub-Saharan Africa countries.

Although African grannies have learned to be resourceful, they need help or their hard []lives will just get harder. The steeply rising cost of staples like rice means that many cannot count on even one meal a day, let alone enough food for a family. Old and young need nutritional fare to strengthen the immune system so antiretroviral medicine can do its work.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the seeming hopelessness of it all but what we experienced most of all was joy and generosity and forbearance. Where these African-grown and -run grassroots projects brought grandmothers together to help them raise their traumatized grandchildren, we saw the pale flicker of hope get stronger. We saw how vulnerable children blossom in programs that help them stay in school, build their self-esteem, and foster their talents.

Before Lewis (in his former role as U.N. Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa) recognized what grandmothers had taken on, most aid agencies hadn’t considered them. He saw how some very basic help could make a difference to their struggle.

When grandparents take on the care of their grandchildren, they are mourning the deaths of their children. They need help to buy coffins and pay for dignified burials. Many families must spend a third of their meager incomes on funerals. They need funds to buy uniforms for their grandchildren: Primary education is ostensibly free in many places, but uniforms are mandatory. They need help to establish sustainable incomes and sustainable gardens. They need mattresses and adequate shelter. Many live in mud-and-straw huts with almost no ventilation, which means that in dry times, interior dust creates breathing problems. In heavy rains, the walls dissolve.

Five months after coming home, all of us are still haunted by images of the people we met. As we pore over our digital photos, we relive the afternoon in a Ugandan school and the sight of 150 children in one elementary classroom, some without even a piece of paper or one pen. Yet we know that for every year of schooling, girls — who make up more than three-quarters of young people with HIV/AIDS — are seven times more likely to survive.

Hands-on help

We go back to the day when we helped build a new brick house to replace one granny's crumbling mud shelter: Africans and Canadians working together to mix the mortar, to carry the bricks, to raise the walls. Colorfully garbed grandmothers walk half a mile with [photo grandmothers max-width=150 align=right]two from our team to bring back water in big, plastic jerricans. Others sit on the ground preparing the meal for everyone. As they peel plantains and sift rice, they sing. Later we dance with them and they wrap their bright patterned sashes around our hips as a mark of welcome and celebration.

Most of us have a deep impulse to help where there is need. That's why it was so gratifying to see how our fund-raising directly helps the lives of the women and children we met. The grandmother-to-grandmother bond is very powerful. We came back determined to continue to raise funds so that the very effective programs we saw can continue. If you want to get involved you don’t have to be a grandmother. You just have to care like one.

My granddaughter and her dad came to one of my talks about Africa. "Very articulate," she said when she'd heard it. After a "love you," she plugged into her music and her own world, where she takes me for granted. I'm happy about that. It means she’s not hungry, alone, or prematurely grown up.

On Sunday, August 24, my new group hosted another fund-raiser, an end-of-summer tea in a beautiful garden. In preparation, we rounded up 150 teacups and saucers, sold tickets, baked toothsome treats, and prayed for sun. Instead of a high-fashion show, we sold paper dresses, each one representing a need and its cost. For example, a $340 paper dress gives a Kenyan AIDS orphan a year of high school and $80 helps a grandmother start a sustainable business. One of our models was my tall, slim granddaughter, now 15. Even though it rained most of the day, many supporters turned out and the day was a success. "The Tea for Triumph Garden Party" raised $15,000.

Grandmothers and granddaughters — we’re all in it together.

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