‘An army of grey haired women has taken over the earth’

American feminist Gloria Steinem once remarked that “one day an army of grey haired women may quietly take over the earth”. I think they have done it, and no one has noticed. I say this because of the Grandmother to Grandmother Campaign, which links grandmothers around the world to aid grandmothers in Africa who are raising their grandchildren. It is a powerful story, not told often enough.

I think of it each time I see Stephen Lewis speaking, as he did at Jack Layton’s funeral last week. Jack Layton’s daughter works at the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which began organizing that campaign in 2006. And there is a story all of its own in how that Foundation came to be, if you will excuse a small aside.

After Lewis became the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa in 2001, he was being driven to despair by seeing what the pandemic was doing to a continent he loved. While he drew great hope from the work being done by grassroots groups all across Africa, international aid didn’t seem to be getting to them. So late in 2002, while exploring the link between HIV/AIDS and the growing famine in southern Africa, he was thinking about his plans to create a foundation to support such groups.

Four days into 2003, Canadian journalist Stephanie Nolen talked of Lewis’ despair in a wrenching (and subsequently award-winning) article about the trip, entitled Stephen Lewis has one word for us: help”. Nolen, then the only journalist covering HIV/AIDS in Africa full-time and the author of 28 stories about AIDS in Africa, understood this feeling only too well. Near the end of her lengthy article, Nolen briefly mentioned Lewis’ plans. Canadians began sending money even before the Foundation formally began – $700,000 that first year – and didn’t stop. The Foundation had created a way for thousands of Canadians, who also understood the power of grassroots community action, to support the African families who were coping with HIV/AIDS.

How the Wakefield Grannies began

The Wakefield Grannies have been supporting grandmothers in one South African township since 2002. Wakefield is a small, historic village of about 4,000 people located in western Quebec just half an hour’s drive from the Canadian capital city, Ottawa. It began in 1830 as a village of immigrants – from Ireland, Scotland and England – and while its focus is now tourism and art, rather than timber, its well-traveled residents know they live in an interdependent world. Canadian prime minister Lester B. Pearson, whose invention of international peacekeeping in 1956 found a creative way to resolve world conflicts, is buried in the village. Like him, Wakefield’s grandmothers know that changing the world begins with small steps.

The story of how they developed a strong friendship with 40 South African grandmothers living in a crowded township near the South African capital of Johannesburg began with film-makers Brenda and Robert Rooney, who had worked with the Canadian International Development Agency and Vision TV in 2002 to make a documentary film entitled Condoms Fish and Circus Tricks. Shot in Malawi, South Africa, and Zambia, the film offered an intimate look at the people who are dying, those who are caring for them and why AIDS has had such a devastating impact on African society. They screened the film at Wakefield’s United Church and raised $1,000 for the church’s AIDS campaign.

In the audience was Thomas Minde, a doctor at Wakefield’s hospital, whose parents had just returned from a year in South Africa. His mother, Nina, a child psychologist, had volunteered at a children’s mental health clinic in Alexandra township, a tightly packed ghetto that is home to nearly 340,000 people. Shocked to see more and more children being brought to the clinic by their grandmothers because their parents were dead or dying from AIDS, and herself a grandmother, Nina offered to run a support group with clinic head nurse Rose Letwaba.

While not much attention was being paid to grandparents in 2002, Rose saw them as the silent victims of AIDS. She invited three grannies to a meeting and they told their stories and everyone cried a lot. The next week, there were five, and then there were 10 and there was no more room in Rose’s office. The grannies said they needed help in getting over the loss of their daughters and raising their grandchildren, who were often sad and angry; many of them had been plunged back into poverty. But as they met, and became more confident in their own abilities and shared their knowledge, they started to blossom and become more joyful.

Thomas told the story to minister Gisele Gilfillen, who invited Nina to speak at a morning service. She showed pictures of the East Bank Clinic and told the congregation about Rose, who soon would be attending a conference in Canada. Nina promised to bring Rose to Wakefield. And so, one Saturday night in October 2004, Rose painted a picture of a whole generation of South Africans lost to AIDS and grieving mothers left to carry the burden of raising their grandchildren to be healthy, educated, socially responsible adults. Rose described the 40 Grannies who were meeting at her clinic for sewing classes, gardening and moral support. An impromptu collection raised about $900, but that didn’t seem enough to 81-year-old Norma Geggie. She wanted to do more.

A partnership that draws in the community

When Norma happened to meet Nina and Rose the next day, she asked “what if a group of women in Wakefield were to partner with these women?” They exchanged e-mail addresses, and Norma began making phone calls. When the Wakefield Grannies met for the first time in November 2004, each drew the name of an Alex Gogo – the Zulu word for grandmother – from a jar. It was the start of a relationship that was both personal, and collective.

The whole community was behind the grannies. They supported fundraising events, sent cheques, and businesses donated money, which was sent to Rose, who decided how it should be spent – for food, sewing equipment, winter blankets and track suits for HIV positive children who are highly susceptible to cold, and occasionally, overnight and weekend breaks for gogos and Alex teens who were heads of their households.

Knowing that grannies on the other side of the world cared so much about them gave the Alex Gogos tremendous hope, and helped dissolve the stigma that often affects such families. Within a year, as people heard about the Wakefield Grannies, other granny groups began in Canada and the United States. In the spring of 2006, the Stephen Lewis Foundation launched a Grandmother to Grandmother campaign that inspired the creation of hundreds of granny groups across Canada, and Lewis came to meet the Wakefield Grannies.

Robert Rooney had been filming the story from the start and soon realized it was a story about women, not about AIDS. In 2006, the Rooneys travelled to South Africa to film the Alex Gogos and then filmed several Wakefield Grannies at the Grandmother to Grandmother gathering. The story came full circle when Rose and three of the Alex gogos visited Wakefield on August 15, 2006. The resulting 80-minute documentary, The Great Granny Revolution, fittingly, had its world premiere in Wakefield on May 5, 2007.

This work is inspiring many younger people. Says one: “If grey-haired old women believe they can impact a change in the world, then why can’t our generation?” Near the end of the film, Rose Letwaba is speaking at the Wakefield United Church. “If everyone was like the people of Wakefield,” she says, “the world would be a better place to live in.”

For more, see:

28 Stories about AIDS (Stephanie Nolen)

The Great Granny Revolution (Rooney Films)

The Wakefield Grannies

The Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign

The Great Granny Revolution

Latest news about the Alexandra Gogos