I first met Mary in Toronto, in a workshop on grief. I had come from Ottawa and she from Kenya to attend the Grandmothers' Gathering, an event organized by the Stephen Lewis Foundation (SLF) prior to last summer's XVI International AIDS Conference. I soon found out that the lovely, graceful woman I was talking to had much to grieve about. In the past two years she had nursed and buried her husband, son, daughter-in-law and son-in-law, all of whom had died of AIDS. Now she was supporting her widowed daughter and her daughter's nine-month-old baby and raising four orphaned grandchildren -- all in her tiny home in a small village about 15 kilometres from Nairobi.
When I saw her, Mary was wearing a brightly coloured African dress and a necklace and earrings she'd made herself; her brown hair was in braids wrapped around her head (styled, she told me proudly, by her daughter, an aspiring hairdresser). She was slim and beautiful -- though I soon discovered that in Africa, unlike in Canada, slimness is often a sign of illness.
Pain of losing her children
Until I met Mary, I thought I understood the plight of African women and children. As a health promotion consultant who has worked with the World Health Organization for several years, I knew that there are about 13 million AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa, and that at least 50 per cent of them are being raised by their grandmothers. Though I'd read the reports and the terrible statistics, words on paper are nothing like having a loving mother and grandmother sit beside you and describe the pain of losing her children. “It's not,” said Mary, in quiet understatement, “the natural order of things.”
Though Mary and I live worlds apart, I understood her immediately and, without warning, began to cry. Imagining what it would be like to bury my own adult children, then to pick up and parent my grandchildren, was almost unthinkable. We hugged each other and cried some more. But Mary, like so many of the grandmothers in her village and in hundreds of similar villages, has little time for tears. Overpowering her sadness is her anxiety about having enough money to feed, care for and educate her grandchildren.
Pride and fear
Raising children is expensive in any country, still the disparities between my life and Mary's are huge. I live in Ottawa in a spacious three-bedroom house with my husband and our dog. My four children and 10 grandchildren live in their own homes; I'm fortunate that I can help out by paying for “extras” such as music lessons and summer camp. Mary doesn't know about extras. After the death of her husband and son, she became the sole breadwinner, but she had already spent what little money the family had on medicines and funerals. Since then she has been desperately looking for ways to pay compulsory school fees and purchase uniforms so that her grandchildren can attend school.
Despite the chasms between us we bonded once again as, in typical proud-grandparent fashion, we enthused about the importance of educating the next generation and the pride we feel when our (exceedingly smart) grandchildren do well in school. I thought about the opportunities my grandchildren have, about our wonderful public school system -- and how we take so much for granted.
That Mary has to pay for school uniforms seems so unfair, though, as she explained, a uniform at least ensures that a child has something decent to wear.
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Facing fear together
As we continued to talk and build a rapport, Mary revealed her greatest fear: she's HIV-positive, and she's terrified that if she dies, her 19-year-old daughter will be left alone with five children to support. Up until this year, women over age 45 were never tested for HIV. So the grannies themselves are often HIV-positive but don't know it.
Although Mary is one of the “lucky” ones -- she has access to life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs due to a new program in the large centres in Kenya -- she worries about the future.
And that's where the Grandmothers' Gathering comes in. The initiative had brought together 100 grandmothers from 13 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and 200 Canadian grandmothers, who had contacted the SLF to see if they could help these women who are raising their orphaned grandchildren.
The three-day event was one of the most emotional and exciting times of my life. We grandmothers overcame language differences through age-old African traditions such as singing, music and dancing. We cheered and whistled when Stephen Lewis delivered his inspiring opening address, and when an African granny dressed in a bright yellow-and-green dress invited Stephen to dance, we all got into the spirit, clapping and laughing enthusiastically.
I was awed not just by the energy the African women brought to the Gathering but by their resilience and commitment. Many of them were from South Africa, and they had fought for justice and against apartheid while raising their children and earning a living. Now, in the face of one of the world's worst pandemics, these same women are holding the continent together.
Instead of having a well-deserved rest, they are actively parenting again, on their own and with few resources -- often without even basics such as food to feed
Since the organizers understood that many of the participants live with food deprivation, they were careful not to have what we'd consider a conspicuous amount at the meetings. During breaks, there was coffee, juice, fruit, energy bars and yogurt, which I thought was appropriate since it is basic healthy food. But to the African women it was an abundant feast. To at least one woman from Uganda this abundance was overwhelming: while all this food was there for the taking, she was painfully aware that her children and grandchildren were home in Africa hungry, with only a rice patty to eat. I thought about how I love to cook with my grandsons, and how I take it as a given that my children and grandchildren will be well fed.
Certainly, I felt sad about the food, but I was in for another shock when we Canadian grandmothers heard about “widow cleansing.” This traditional practice forces a new widow to have sexual relations with either a designated village “cleanser” or with a relative of her late husband; purportedly it's to help the widow break with the past, but it's also an attempt to establish ownership of the deceased man's property -- including his wife.
One African woman recounted how the grandmother group in her village had banded together and refused to have sex with a cleanser who was HIV-positive. “We used to say we would die for our traditions,” she said. “And we all may truly die if we don't stop this one.” So they would no longer have to rely on the men in the village for support, they had borrowed funds from a development program to create a brick-making business.
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Joining the march
On the last day of the Gathering, we walked several blocks through downtown Toronto to present a statement to a representative from the United Nations and the cochair of the XVI International AIDS Conference. Torontonians were with us, and I felt jubilant. Our lively group of grannies attracted people, especially young parents pushing strollers, and our numbers grew as they joined the march.
In three days, our disparate group had bonded. Grandmothers, even in Canada, are often invisible. It's not surprising that on the world stage people think about those who are dying from AIDS, but we don't think about who is left to care for those who remain.
As my best friend and I drove home to Ottawa at the end of the Gathering, we expressed what all of the Canadian and African grandmothers felt -- that doing nothing was not an option.
We went home to network, fund-raise, speak out and form groups. At the time of the Gathering there were about 40 granny groups across Canada. Now there are more than 150, including 14 in the Ottawa region. I helped to form The One World Grannies, and I act as a regional networker so the Ottawa groups can share information and support one another's activities.
Since the SLF is primarily involved in funding projects directly, the Canadian granny groups have pledged to act as fund-raisers and ambassadors for our sisters in Africa, to raise the volume on their long-suppressed stories and to apply political pressure. One example of advocacy work saw grannies across Canada petitioning the Canadian government to live up to our promise to get generic HIV drugs to Africa.
As of this past spring, almost three years after Parliament voted to fast-track the export of cheaper generic drugs (including HIV drugs), not one single pill had been shipped to Africa or any poor country requesting them. Grandmothers from Africa and Canada are also united in their efforts to pressure national governments and international agencies to eliminate school fees, support grandmothers with pensions and increase education opportunities for girls in Africa.
I haven't seen Mary since we met in Toronto, but I heard that she was able to make enough money by making and selling jewelry to send her daughter to hairdressing school. Her daughter now works in Nairobi and brings a regular income into the household.
Mary is also an active participant in a local chapter of The Kenya Widows and Orphans Support Programme, which is supported by the SLF. The program helps widows develop income-generating activities to pay for school fees and other needs and provides emotional and social support to grandmothers who are grieving and parenting again.
I pray that Mary stays well and enjoys some happier times with her daughter and grandchildren, and I hope she knows that the Canadian grandmothers are with her all the way.
How you can help
• Join or start a granny group as part of the Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign organized by the Stephen Lewis Foundation.
• Make a donation to the Stephen Lewis Foundation or host a fund-raising even through your church, synagogue, or other religious centre, or a community group.
• Support other nongovernmental agencies that provide aid and advocacy for orphans, women and older people in Africa.
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