African and Canadian grandmothers meet in Swaziland

The first African grandmothers gathering in history was held May 6-8 and 42 members of grandmothers groups in Canada were privileged to join this exciting event. "Prevent abuse against Gogos.""More support for Gogos.

The first African grandmothers gathering in history was held May 6-8 and 42 members of grandmothers groups in Canada were privileged to join this exciting event.

“Prevent abuse against Gogos.”

“More support for Gogos.”

“Canadian and African grandmothers together.”

The banners and T-shirts, some proclaiming, “I am HIV Positive,” AND the T-shirts with the Grandmothers to Grandmothers logo worn by more than 2,000 marchers spoke loudly about the plight of grandmothers in Africa who are raising their grandchildren owing to the death of the parents from HIV AIDS.

Although the march in Swaziland was to bring attention to the pandemic in sub Saharan Africa, it was not a solemn march, two kilometers of dancing and singing by the Africans and Canadians shook the very trees along the route and shook up the onlookers who were no doubt amazed the marchers were so open about HIV AIDS.

The Stephen Lewis Foundation supported the conference and march in Manzini, Swaziland. Five hundred grandmothers from 13 sub Saharan countries came together to share their stories, and to hear from each other about the programs that provide support to grandmothers, or Gogos as they are called in Africa.

Fourty two Canadian members of Grandmothers to Grandmothers groups were also privileged to attend this gathering, myself included. In all, we represented more than 8,000 members of Grandmother-to-Grandmother groups across Canada.

We met in Johannesburg, South Africa. Most of us did not know each other, but we quickly bonded while sharing our common values and a dedication to raising funds to help our African sisters.

All of us had an opportunity to visit one of the projects in the city funded by the SLF. In my case, a centre in Soweto, the well known historical township that was so crucial in the anti-apartheid movement.

This centre provides counseling for grandparents, necessary supplies such as food or bedding, a library of books and toys.

The centre provides both home care and activities at the centre. Many of the children being cared for are HIV positive and require a complex dosage of medication at least twice a day. Grandmothers are instructed in how to administer the drugs. In addition, the centre provides in house care for children who do not have a caregiver.

It was very touching to see a group of South African men from a volunteer group holding the babies and giving them the attention they so much craved.

We had lunch with a number of the grandmothers and they asked about our families and shared their story.

The grandmothers ranged in age from late 70s to 40s and all were raising a number of children and, in some cases, looking after their own ill children. All had suffered the loss of family members. Few had husbands as they too had passed away.

As we drove through Soweto, I, in my 70s, tried to picture what it must be like to raise several children in a dwelling no larger than a small one-car garage, with little heat (it was winter in South Africa), no water or electricity.

But they do it, children somehow (often with the help of the foundation) got school uniforms and shoes, and every grandmother was dedicated to seeing her grandchildren received an education. Something most of the Gogos had had no chance to do owing to apartheid.

Having had this dose of reality, we were off in a bus for the long drive to Swaziland where we were met by the indomitable powerhouse advocate for those with HIV AIDs and head of SWAPOL, Siphiwe Hlope.

Her organization, with funding from the SLF, was the organizer of the gathering and demonstrated, without a doubt, these women could be extremely effective in carrying out this monumental task. Even in Canada, organizing a gathering of 500 grandmothers from 13 countries, many illiterate and who had never travelled, featuring 20 workshops and a march would have been a challenge. But not only did they do it, the event was a great success.

It is impossible in a short space to reflect the power and passion of these workshops. But several general impressions persist. First, the many innovative ways these women were trying to earn some money – they wanted to be self sufficient.

Micro financing was very effective in many communities and those who had implemented the program were committed to sharing their experience and manuals on how to start such a project.

Other groups did crafts, had small farms or sold various products. I had to continually remind myself that they were doing all of this, in addition to caring for large families, some of whom might be ill or they themselves HIV positive. In some countries, grandmothers are subject to abuse and the stigma of HIV AIDS pervades everything they wish to do.

What was clear was that the empowerment this gathering engendered was felt by everyone. They thanked the Canadians for our support and, while the funds were crucial, they said that they were inspired by the fact women so far away recognized their plight and their courage. We were inspired by them and the hope they felt.

I have been involved in many countries in development issues for decades and I know many organizations do good work.

But there are some principles that the Stephen Lewis Foundation embodies that I think are particularly important to effect real change.

First, the foundation funds grassroots organizations – the communities decide what is needed and the requests are assessed on the ability of the organization to administer the program, the involvement of the local community and the degree to which the foundation has the ability to sustain funding.

Too often, I have seen good projects that receive one-term funding that cannot be sustained and provides only disappointment with the funder and frustration for those who so desperately need the service.

The foundation has local field representatives who know the projects and do constant follow up and evaluation, always working within the capability of the local project.

As Ilana Landsberg- Lewis, executive director of the foundation said, we are here to help make the voices of African grandmothers heard, we were there in solidarity, but solidarity is not simply empathy – it is providing concrete assistance and this takes money.

In the fall of this year, the Yukon grandmothers group will be having a major fundraiser, and I will make a full presentation and slideshow on this gathering, as well as holding a live and silent auction. So keep tuned.

However, readers can do something now. A walk is being held across Canada in mid June to bring attention to the organization and show African grandmothers we support them.

The Yukon group is participating in this, we have scarves made in Africa which can be purchased for $15. These scarves not only provided employment for some of the women, but also symbolize our support. We want to make sure the Yukon is on the map for this national endeavour. Join us as we participate in the National Walk for Solidarity at noon, June 11, meet in front of city hall on Second Avenue.

On June 3, Grandmothers to Grandmothers will be at the Fireweed market , Shipyards Park with more information, scarves and goods for sale … please drop by .

Former Yukon MP Audrey McLaughlin is chair of Yukon Grandmothers to Grandmothers, Stephen Lewis Foundation.