Most Canadians have heard about AIDS in Africa but few fully grasp the scope of the pandemic. Over the past 30 years, nearly 30 million people have died of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa leaving 17 million orphan children – that’s almost twice the number of children in all of Canada – most of them living with their grandmothers.
Grandmothers in Africa have stepped up to provide the care that their grandchildren need. In the face of their own unbearable grief, they bury their beloved children, cope with their own deteriorating health and begin to parent again with few resources. They know what to do; they just need the resources to do it.
That’s why, in 2006, the Stephen Lewis Foundation invited 100 African grandmothers to meet with 200 Canadian grandmothers in Toronto for the first-ever Grandmothers Gathering. The African grandmothers shared their stories of hardship and determination and made clear their needs and priorities for the future. Canadian grandmothers listened, learned and organized … and the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign was born. Since then it has grown to encompass more than 10,000 women in 250 groups across Canada. Royal City Gogos (Gogo is a Zulu word for grandmother) is a grandmother group based in New Westminster.
Since 2006, the Grandmothers Campaign in Canada has raised more than $25 million dollars. Ninety percent of the money is sent by the Stephen Lewis Foundation directly to their community-based partners who work with grandmothers in 15 sub-Saharan countries. The impact of ongoing support at community level can be felt in wellness in every way.
Here are three examples (none of the names used are their real names):
Jacqueline lost seven children to AIDS. For years, she lived alone with her six grandchildren, feeling the stigma and pain of her loss. Then a community-based organization in Durban persuaded her to come to grief counseling, and helped her feed and clothe her grandchildren. Now Maria volunteers at a local AIDS centre, refers people to the health clinic, and works at a neighbourhood crèche. She enjoys her work and has re-established her status (and her dignity) as a leader in her community. Wellness begins with meeting basic needs.
Suzanne works for a community-based project in Kenya that provides counseling to grief-stricken and isolated grandmothers who were in despair at the deaths of their children. With Suzanne’s support, many of these same grandmothers have gone on to form new grandmothers networks, reaching further into the community. As Suzanne reports, “First you stop their despair, then you help them find a reason to live. Once they’re on their feet again, they’ll develop among themselves a means to live better.” Wellness thrives with psychosocial support.
Thanda is a grandmother living with HIV, who lost countless family members to AIDS. Like many grandmothers in sub-Saharan Africa, Thanda realized something had to be done. With the help of a community-based organization in Swaziland, she started a feeding programme for orphaned and vulnerable children from her home. In addition, Thanda goes out into the community as a trained caregiver to visit terminally ill community members. Despite her grief, she does her best to bring nutritious food and healthcare to her family and her community. Wellness continues when community members work together.
And that’s not all. With sustained funding from the Grandmothers Campaign, African grandmothers are now recognized as agents of change – getting elected to represent grandmothers on property disputes, lobbying the government for better pensions and child support, working to end gender-based violence. Wellness enables empowerment.
After decades of living at the epicentre of the AIDS pandemic, African grandmothers have developed the resilience and expertise to overcome stigma, protect their grandchildren, bring hope to their communities and advocate for change. They are the backbone of the healthcare system, the lynchpins of their communities, and the guardians of their country’s future.
The Royal City Gogos’ are privileged to stand in solidarity with the grandmothers of Africa and the wellness work they undertake every day.
You can help African grandmothers by supporting events in your community. Royal City Gogos is hosting Artisan Crafts for Africa on Friday November 4, 4pm to 8pm and Saturday November 5, 10am – 4pm at Unifor Hall, 326 Twelfth Street, New Westminster.