Grandmas Hold AIDS Key in Africa. 1/6/10
The backbone of their communities, they have the power to invoke change
I'm still reeling from my two-week trip to Swaziland and South Africa with the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign of the Stephen Lewis Foundation.
I was expecting to hear some heartbreaking stories and to recognize the courage these grandmothers show. But I wasn't expecting the depth of the need, or the sheer inventiveness these women display in order to hold their families together.
The grandmothers I met came together in Swaziland from May 6 to 9, 2010, at the invitation of Siphiwe Hlope of SWAPOL -- Swaziland Positive Living. The 500-strong group came from 13 African countries to take part in the first-ever Grandmothers Gathering held on African soil, and were joined by 42 of us -- Canadian grandmothers who raise funds and awareness for our African sisters.
They shared stories of desperate need and devastation as a result of poverty and the ravages of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Miraculously, they also shared stories of inventive ideas, community building and income-generating projects that, in community after community, country after country, are turning loss and despair into reconstruction and support.
Ann from the WEMIHS project in Kenya shocked and then delighted me with her story of how she counselled suicidal grandmothers.
In the year before she was hired, she said, 12 grandmothers, in despair at the deaths of their children, sat on the graves of their children to wait for death.
"If you dare die on me," she threatened her therapy group with a laugh, "I will come to your funeral, take you out of your coffin and beat you back to life. And, if you want to die again, you'll have to get my permission first. You can't die -- your grandchildren need you."
As she spoke, her face sparkled with the liveliest energy and good humour; I could just imagine her chasing despair from those women.
Only two grandmothers died that year, and the others went on to become leaders of other grandmother groups, reaching out further into the community. They are now sharing ways to make money and to deal with rebellious teenagers.
"First you stop them dying, then you help them find a reason to live; once they're on their feet again, they'll develop amongst themselves a means to live better," said Ann.
On May 7, we went to workshops to learn from each other such innovative ideas as Table Banking. Once a month, a group of 10 to 12 grandmothers put about $2 into the pot, which is split between two grandmothers for their income generating project that month.
They must repay the borrowed amount with agreed interest. If they do, all is well, and another two grandmothers share the new larger pot.
If not, then all the others put in extra for the one who defaults; as close neighbours, they know well what problems she may have faced.
"But," asked one cautious grandmother, "what if I hoe, but my neighbour doesn't?"
The workshop leader smiled.
"Then, my friend, you all DISCUSS what to do with her."
The laughter around the room left no doubt it would be better to have the bank foreclose on you than to be DISCUSSED by your friends.
One day in South Africa sticks out in my memory, when we went to Pretoria to visit Tateni, a project supported by the Stephen Lewis Foundation.
As I walked into St. Francis Church hall, the waiting African grandmothers burst into song, so rich and full of harmony it felt like a physical wave wrapping around me.
What a welcome!
One grandmother pointed to a photo of my two grandsons with my daughter Helen and said: "Your daughter? Ah, still alive. Not mine."
She told me that she had lost eight of her nine children, most to AIDS.
The African grandmothers repeatedly thanked us for coming, but we were the ones who felt an immense gratitude to them for welcoming us so warmly and for teaching us about courage and perseverance in the face of overwhelming loss.
On the Grandmothers March, as I marched through the streets of Manzini, Swaziland, with up to 2,000 African grandmothers and supporters chanting songs of power and solidarity, I felt a growing conviction in my heart: African grandmothers are the backbone of their communities, and they have the power to turn the tide of AIDS in Africa.
Their clarion call to the international community goes out in the Manzini Statement: "True sustainability is in the hands of grandmothers and other community activists. Africa cannot survive without us. We call on you to deliver on your promises."
Lisbie Rae is a member of Grandmothers of Steel, part of the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, supporting the work of the Stephen Lewis Foundation in more than 300 projects in sub-Saharan Africa. On June 12, she will join grandmothers across the country as they walk between them the distance across Canada in a National Walk. The Hamilton walk starts at Hutch's at Van Wagner's Beach at 9 to 11 a.m. Support African grandmothers by sponsoring Lisbie Rae or another walker at grandmotherscampaign.org/ nationalwalk.html