It was a little over a decade ago when Stephen Lewis’ daughter Ilana Landsberg-Lewis turned to him and said, “Dad, there’s something happening in Africa that no one’s paying attention to.”
She spoke to him about how so many African grandmothers were raising the 15 million children orphaned by the continent’s HIV-AIDS pandemic.
Those grandmothers had reached the stage in their lives when they expected to be cared for by their families.
Instead, they were burying their children and struggling to raise their grandchildren in abject poverty.
“So many parts of Africa felt like a graveyard,” Lewis said.
That father-daughter conversation was the genesis of a movement connecting grandmothers in Canada to grandmothers in more than a dozen countries Africa.
The Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign celebrated its 10th anniversary this weekend with a get-together at Centennial College.
Across Canada, there are now 10,000 volunteers in 240 chapters who are affiliated to the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which works with community-based organizations to combat the effects of HIV and AIDS in Africa.
They work for better services for AIDS orphans and have raised about $25 million for their African counterparts in a variety of ways, including pot luck dinners, art auctions, bike rides and quilting bees.
For the past two weeks, grandmothers Regina Dongo, 72, and Maude Nhau, 66, from Zimbabwe have been in Canada, thanking and connecting with the Canadian grandparents.
“We were so excited,” Dongo said. “It was my first attempt to be on an airplane. I was thinking, ‘I’m going to fall from the airplane.’”
The trip was worth the anxiety, she said.
“People here, they’re wonderful,” Dongo said. “They’ve got great passion.”
Dongo and Nhau are associated with the Mavambo Trust, which provides community services like home visits, raising funds for education advocating for rights for children.
Dongo and Nhau have done their volunteer work since 2003 while raising orphaned grandchildren of their own.
Nhau cares for 11 orphaned grandchildren while Dongo looks after 12.
Lewis said the Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign really got rolling in August 2006 during the International AIDS conference in Toronto, when 100 African grandmothers from 12 countries met with more 200 Canadian grandmothers.
“The African grannies ran it from beginning to end and we were on our way,” Lewis said. “What it has evolved into is a movement — a social movement.”
Back when the movement began, resources were tough to attain and people didn’t even want to talk about AIDS.
“It was really a struggle for survival,” Lewis said.
“Ninety per cent of this money has gone directly to the grassroots,” Lewis said.
The grandmothers have become a force to be reckoned with, advocating for pensions and education and medical care and fighting for land rights.
“The struggle for survival has become an assertion of human rights,” Lewis said.
He images that, in 10 years, there will be grandmothers holding elected senior positions in education and health care in various African countries.
“These grassroots community organizations make all of the difference in the world,” Lewis said. “This is how change happens.”
Lewis said there is a strong feminist engine to this movement.
“Gender inequality drives it,” Lewis said, noting that girls in African are often pushed into marriage at an early age.
Often, they don’t have the power to decline sex or to make their partner wear a condom.
“They’re trapped by male sexual entitlement in the majority,” he said. “As a result of that, the virus was transmitted.”
Dongo and Nhau said they look forward to a decade from now, when there will be lawyers and doctors and other educated professionals rising from the AIDS/HIV orphans raised by the grannies.
Asked what message she has for Canadians, Dongo said: “To love each other. Like the grandmothers do.”
Canadian grandmother Marg Wilson, 78, of Guelph, said she was moved to tears in 2006 when she heard Lewis speak about the African grandmothers.
Her involvement in the movement has taken her to Ethiopia, where a 5-year-old girl walked up to her and took her hand.
“I thought, ‘Where is she going to be in 10 years?,’ ” Wilson said.
Toronto grandmother Sharon Polansky, 66, said she’s impressed that the movement is driven from the bottom up, with grandmothers in Africa deciding what their needs are.
While there’s much left to do, the four grandmothers and Lewis found it was nice to be able to reflect this weekend on the gains they have made in the past decade.
“We’ve come a long way in 10 years,” Polansky said.
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