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Building international solidarity in the fight to turn the tide of HIV/AIDS in Africa: Grandmothers lead the way


I Introduction
II Grand hopes from two shores
III An intergenerational appeal
IV Conclusion

-- submitted by Peggy Edwards

I Introduction

Grandmothers in sub-Saharan Africa and Canada are leading the way in grassroots efforts to turn the tide on HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. This article explores what African grandmothers, their granddaughters and their Canadian sisters are saying about their needs, their demands and their progress. Peggy Edwards, a member of the One World Grannies in Ottawa and of the National Advocacy Committee of the Grandmothers Campaign, reflects on 1) what she heard at the first gathering of African grandmothers in Swaziland in May 2010, and 2) some of the things that Joanna Henry, National Coordinator at the Stephen Lewis Foundation of the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign wrote about her recent trip with African granddaughters and grandmothers, who visited 40 Canadian communities in the Fall of 2010.

II Grand hopes from two shores

In May 2010, the first-ever African Grandmothers’ Gathering took place in Swaziland. Forty-two Canadian grandmothers joined some 500 African grandmothers from 13 countries for two days of workshops and discussion. On the last day, the Canadians marched in solidarity through the streets of Manzini with 1,500 grandmothers and “grandothers” to draw attention to the critical role that grandmothers play in dealing with the AIDS pandemic.

During the gathering, the African grandmothers shared their experiences as “parents” of orphaned grandchildren, as caregivers and as activists, and articulated their priorities for action. They discussed care for HIV-positive grandchildren, food security and micro-credit financing, as well as social security, violence and inheritance rights. All of these themes are captured in the powerful Manzini Statement (see, which was presented to the world by the African grandmothers at the end of the gathering.

The Canadian grandmothers listened, asked questions and expressed their support on behalf of the thousands of grandmothers in over 240 groups in Canada. Each delegate interviewed at least one African grandmother or project leader and asked her the following question: “What is your greatest hope for the future?” The Canadian grandmothers  then answered the question themselves.

An analysis of the “hopes” of both the African and Canadian grandmothers suggests six common themes:

1. Empowerment for women, especially grandmothers. Grandmothers from both shores called for increased respect and recognition of the strength and leadership shown by older women. They demanded that their voices be heard and hoped that the grandmother movements in both Africa and Canada will grow in numbers and power.

“I want people to know about us and then I want us to take charge of our own lives.” ….Jennifer, a grandmother from Uganda looking after two grandchildren

“I hope that the number of African grandmothers becoming stronger will continue to grow. For this to happen, the number of grandmother groups and the dollars raised in Canada must continue to grow. May we all speak out – in strong voices together – to educate, to right injustices, and to turn the tide of AIDS.”  … Canadian grandmother

2. A better life for the children in their care. Grandmothers spoke passionately about the importance of education in enabling the next generation to have a better life. They spoke about the rights of children and adolescents to security, safety and food in their bellies. They had special hopes to save and better the lives of children who are HIV-positive.

“My wish for the future is for all children to be able to attend school, that there is help with school fees for all African children.” … Swazi grandmother and volunteer home support worker who helps two child-headed households

“My hope for the future is that the need for education is taken care of TODAY so that the future will be brighter for all of Africa. We must raise funds as well as advocate for schooling!”  … Canadian grandmother
3. Meeting basic needs. While the African grandmothers in projects supported by the Stephen Lewis Foundation have made real progress, the need for help with food, shelter, health care and medicines remains. They called for economic empowerment through universal government pensions for older people, grants to help orphans and access to jobs and income generating activities.

“I hope for more food –there is a drought in my country and grandmothers there receive no money. Better housing for grandmothers and orphans. School materials and bursaries so that the young people can continue their education.” … grandmother from Malawi looking after five grandchildren

4. Human rights. The grandmothers demanded an end to violence against women and children and to the adoption of gender equality and women’s rights in all countries and communities.

“My hope is that women and children around the world would enjoy safety, respect and basic human rights.” … Canadian grandmother

“Women must have rights to her property when her husband dies (in-laws must not take all the property).”  … grandmother from Kenya

5. Dealing with HIV/AIDS. Grandmothers called for scaled up efforts in preventing and treating HIV/AIDS. For an end to the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS, for better care for people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS and increased respect and support for caregivers. They hope that a cure for AIDS and a vaccine to prevent the transmission of HIV will be found soon.

“I hope they find a cure for AIDS and it can come to an end.” … Sabina, 78 year-old grandmother from Zambia with five grandchildren in her care

“I wish for ARVs to be available to all who need them.” … a Canadian grandmother

6.  Action by governments and international agencies. Grandmothers in Africa and Canada call on their governments and on international agencies to put policies, programs and financial assistance in place that will address all of their hopes, needs and rights.

“Presidents and leaders in African countries must get involved in the fight against AIDS.”   … Ugandan grandmother, caring for abandoned and orphaned children

 “I hope that Canada and the Western world powers will have developed a social conscience and put their best foot forward in helping the African continent deal with eradicating HIV/AIDS. That finally, the courageous grandmothers of Africa can sit back and live out their senior years in dignity and peace!” … a Canadian grandmother

III An intergenerational appeal

From September to November 2010, the Stephen Lewis Foundation AfriGrand Caravan travelled from Newfoundland to British Columbia with African grandmothers and granddaughters orphaned by AIDS. At every stop, they were hosted by young people and grandmothers who were eager to listen and to show their support.

The Caravan was the first time that Canadians heard directly from granddaughters. Their stories saddened many young Canadians and inspired them to get involved.

Young women are the most vulnerable in the context of HIV and AIDS. They are often the first to be pulled out of school to help care for dying mothers and raise families of orphaned siblings. The struggle for family survival leaves them exposed to unwanted and unprotected sex as they live their adolescent years in the grips of poverty, hunger, and a lack of adequate education and opportunities. Here are reports about two of the heroic young women on the Caravan.

Nkulie, age 17 spoke with great passion about the power of a secondary education and strong peer groups to provide young women with hope and a future. Nkulie’s mother died of AIDS-related causes just nine months before she left South Africa to join the Canadian Caravan. She lives with her grandmother and attends a community program called Tateni, supported by the Stephen Lewis Foundation.  Here she receives food and counselling and meets with other teens to discuss difficult topics like HIV/AIDS prevention, teen pregnancy and sexual abuse.
Nkulie wore a pair of terrific red shoes—a gift from her community who pitched in to buy her some clothes for her trip to Canada. In Halifax, she learned how high school students there had launched a Red Shoelace Campaign. They raised hundreds of dollars by selling single red shoelaces to wear in their shoes as a sign of solidarity with Africans on the front line of the AIDS pandemic.  

Nkulie spoke publicly in a variety of communities twice a day to crowds of people ranging from high school students to grandmothers and politicians.
On one occasion she told students, “HIV and AIDS doesn’t choose based on your colour, your money, your country – anyone can be chosen.” She closed her speech by saying, “How do you think hope will come? By helping each other, sharing ideas with each other, communicating with each other globally.” She held out her hands and it was impossible not to feel the impulse of the Canadian young people to reach back in response.
Nkulie plans to become a lawyer. She says that her experience in Canada has helped her understand more about social justice and dignity. “I know it is my right to have an education, to have all the choices available for my life; for me and all young people.”
Nkule spoke passionately about the bond she felt for the Canadians she met on the Caravan. “I tell you truly, each and every pillow that I have slept on, I have left my heart there with unconditional love. I know we are going to continue on, working together, the Canadians and Africans. We are doing something so big here. We are importing and exporting love, support, strength and hope.”

Nineteen-year-old Thandeka Motsa told an Edmonton audience her story. At age 12, she nursed her chronically ill mother until she succumbed to AIDS. Three days later she lost her father in a tragic accident. She, two brothers and her sister moved in with their great-grandmother. Thandeka became the mother to her 3 siblings as well as nurse to her great grandmother, who died shortly after at age 99.  
Thandeka had to drop out of school and work as a hairdresser to manage the load. Now that her great-grandmother is gone, she fears they will become homeless when the home is forfeited to other relatives who are acting to see the children evicted from the property.
At this point in her story, Thandeka’s voice cracked and she began to cry. The silence was heavy but lasted only a moment before it was broken by the booming voice of GoGo Nde, the grandmother accompanying her on this leg of the Caravan. GoGo Nde threw back her head and sang while Thandeka stood quietly and allowed the song to wrap around her.  Just as suddenly as she began, GoGo Nde ended her song and declared, “Now she can continue.” And Thandeka (who plans to become a doctor) indeed could – and did – finish her speech.

Joanna says, “Listening to their song helped me answer the question that was asked of them time and time again: ‘How do you do it?’  They do it together, here and at home. They give each other the strength to stand. One by one they pull those around them to their feet until there is a community standing together. A community that will turn the tide of HIV and AIDS.”

IV Conclusion

The Manzini Gathering demonstrated the growing empowerment of the courageous African grandmothers who are leading the way in the grassroots fight to save African families in the face of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. They are battered but not broken, and are demanding that their rights be respected. In the face of a worldwide economic downturn, their need for support has become even more critical.

Despite the challenges and burdens faced by granddaughters in sub-Saharan Africa, these resilient young women refuse to give up on a happier and healthier future. With the support of grassroots programs, they engage in innovative ways to resurrect their lives.

Their stories strike a chord with Canadians – both grandmothers and “grandothers” including young people across the country. Their Canadian sisters stand in solidarity in the fight to ensure that Canada shows leadership on HIV/AIDS at home and worldwide, and makes good on its promises to Africa.

On the eve of World AIDS Day, the author of this article and thousands of other Canadians invite you to join us in this essential movement of global citizenship. Donate; advocate; join, start or support a Grandmother group in your area. Visit to find out more.