By Tracey Wallace and Robertson Bales
Special to the News
‘I like to use photography because it’s a way to show other people in the world the beauty of my country Swaziland,” says Lindeke Nkwangana a member of the Anti-AIDS Club at Kaphunga Secondary School in Swaziland.
Kaphunga is a small rural village located approximately 55 kilometres southeast of Manzini, the largest centre in the Kingdom of Swaziland.
Lindeke is one of eight girls between the ages of 14 and 17 who joined us in Manzini to take part in the 1,000 Women March on March 8, International Women’s Day to recognize the work of Bogogo (grandmothers).
The Anti-AIDS club at Kaphunga High School was formed in 2005 by a group of girls who aspire to combat HIV/AIDS by spreading messages through songs and poems.
They are all taking part in the Through an African Lens Project with Robertson Bales and Tracey Wallace — a participatory photography project that aims to give other’s a voice by telling the stories of their lives through photography.
During the week leading up to the march each of the girls were given their own camera and a quick lesson on its use — which all the girls soon mastered.
No other direction was given other than to take pictures that would help tell a story of their own lives around their school and community.
The march was organized by a local NGO, Swazi People Living Positively and supported by the Stephen Lewis Foundation as part of its Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign.
The 1,000 Women March celebrates solidarity for African grandmothers now raising their orphaned grandchildren who have lost their parents to AIDS.
Also present at the march were 12 Canadian grandmothers who are travelling for two and a half weeks through Uganda, South Africa and Swaziland to visit African grandmothers and their orphaned grandchildren living in communities struggling with HIV and AIDS.
“The elderly have been playing an important role even before the HIV/AIDS era. They have been an integral part of society, a refuge, a pillar of strength and a source of wisdom,” says Khangezile Dlamini, one of the speakers at the assembly preceding the march.
“It is unfortunate though that as much as the elderly have been playing this role they have not been recognized sufficiently.
“Neither have they been rewarded accordingly not only in financial terms but also in goodwill and celebration.
“So it is fitting to take a moment today to honour and raise the profile for Bogogo in recognition of their valuable contribution as well as bring to the surface some of the challenges they have to deal with in their daily lives.”
Some 13 million children have been orphaned by AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa since the first cases of HIV/AIDS were identified in 1981.
The people who have been most affected by the virus fall within the ages of 18 to 35 years leaving behind young children and no one in the family of wage-earning age.
The elderly, most of whom are female, have found themselves having to care and support their grandchildren; in some countries 40-60 per cent of orphaned children live in grandmother-headed households.
In Swaziland, the challenges for Bogogo, posed by the loss of wage earners in their family is exasperated by the socio-economic policies of the Swazi government.
For example, Swaziland’s constitution states that the government shall attend to the welfare of the elderly “subject to the availability of resources….”
Currently, government support for Bogogo is set at 166 Emalengeni per month, approximately C$23. Considering that many Bogogo support upwards of eight grandchildren, this current amount is severely inadequate
The limitations of the socio-economic rights for the elderly impact directly on their grandchildren’s education — school fees, school uniforms and transportation for a school child is costly in Swaziland.
Consequently many are unable to attend school.
Yet, it was difficult to associate these deep social problems with the Bogogo who took part in the 1,000 Women March.
Their energy, laughter, singing and dancing was nothing short of impressive — it was all we could do to keep up with the swift pace the grandmothers set in the 30 degree heat through Manzini for the one-and-a-half kilometre walk to the trade centre stadium.
We were honoured to be able to sit with two Bogogo to talk about their day-to-day lives. They responded to our questions with a quiet dignity, proud to tell the story of their lives despite the conditions under which they were living.
They asked for nothing in return. Their only wish was to pass on their story. We would meet up with these two women numerous times throughout the day.
They greeted us with ready smiles and always paused to chat; they were simply inexhaustible. This is most likely how they are able to greet their own days; with a tirelessness, sense of duty and dignity unmatched by many.
During the course of the march and the events that followed, Phumsile, Lindeke, Zintombi, Gugu, Buyisile, Thandiwe, Zakele and Ncobile went through five or six rolls of film each.
It took a bit of coaxing to get them near to the activities happening on the stage to get close up shots, but once there they soon found their confidence.
We are hopeful the girls will continue to develop an appreciation for the larger movement happening in Swaziland, with woman in particular, speaking out about their rights and the slow steps being taken toward equality.
Perhaps this will give them the momentum necessary to stay committed to their Anti-AIDS club and to feel part of a larger body of woman moving toward a life where their voices can and will be heard.
Tracey Wallace and Robertson Bales are two Yukoners working on the production of a photo-documentary titled Through an African Lens.
This is part of a two-year public engagement project called Breakthrough for Africa’ in partnership with Victoria International Development Association and the Canadian International Development Agency.
Through an African Lens is a two part photo-documentary project. The first part profiles local grassroots community development projects working in the area of HIV/AIDS and the right to education and the many people making them happen.
The second part is the children’s participatory photography workshop; a project that empowers children to tell their stories through their eyes while at the same time raising their self-esteem and confidence.
Material for this project including photography, video and voice recordings are currently being produced over a two-month period in Zambia, South Africa and Swaziland.
You will be hearing and seeing more about this project when Wallace and Bales return to Yukon in early April.