Montreal's senior monthly since 1986

Feb '10

Columns

Helping African grandmothers cope with pandemic

When NDG artist Thérèse Lambert heard about the struggles of her fellow grandmothers coping with the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa, she didn’t just send a cheque and good wishes.

During the 2006 World HIV/AIDS Conference in Toronto she was inspired by a group of Wakefield grandmothers traveling to raise awareness of the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign. Launched that year, the nationwide effort mobilizes Canadian grassroots support for projects to help African women raising grandchildren on their own.

Given pause at the scope of the crisis, Lambert decided to get involved hands-on. “There are 20 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa,” she relates, “and the grandmothers are left to bring them up because the parents have died of AIDS. It’s appalling, disastrous.” On contacting the foundation she was put in touch with two volunteers who helped her organize a local group. After an initial meeting, the effort garnered some press coverage, “and from then on people started calling,” she says. “So now we’re 16 members. They come once a month and we do fundraising for the foundation. Altogether there’s over 200 groups, and they’ve collected more than four million dollars.”

Among this veritable army of Canadian grannies, Lambert’s team is distinctly energetic. “My girls are terrific – I call them my girls because they’re all younger than me,” she jokes. Besides promoting the campaign they keep in touch personally with the grandmothers they support, sending necessities such as blankets collaboratively hand-knitted in Quebec and assembled in Africa, she says, while trying “to show them solidarity, that we know what they’re going through.”

Their correspondence with the villages they help is sobering. In some areas up to ten percent of children are orphaned by HIV/AIDS, and a whole generation of women have had to take on parenting a second time after having nursed and then buried their own children, often amidst a climate of ostracization and denial.

“They’re afraid to tell people they have HIV – even the kids,” says Lambert. The stigma associated with infection, in a region where transmission and treatment are poorly understood (the recently departed South African Health Minister, for instance, was infamous for denouncing antiretrovirals in favour of beetroot and garlic), ends many patients’ economic lives before the disease takes hold. In areas reliant on subsistence farming, refusal to trade with known infected persons means an even greater burden on grandparents.

“Imagine at that age, having to take care of your children as they die, and then look after your grandchildren, with nothing,” Lambert reflects solemnly, noting the stamina required. “When you get to this age, you still think you’re young. You forget. Sometimes I get up to get moving and I realize, my God, slow down, you just can’t do it! But in my heart I’m still able. It’s not easy to accept it,” she admits. “A lot of people do accept it, they say, but I don’t believe them. It’s such a change in mentality.”

Besides the physical challenges, she sees women of her generation facing similar struggles for respect and recognition across cultures. “Other generations are born and have other ideas, and your way is the way of the past – what you say doesn’t count, it doesn’t apply. People say, ‘things have changed, that was years ago...’ and they stop listening before you finish, and they miss important stuff.” Fighting to assert their voice and visibility is one bond they share, she says. Another is the long-term perspective to maintain the hope and certainty that attitudes can change over time.

Ever on the lookout for new recruits, she’s currently organizing her semiannual “Play Your Own Game” fundraiser – a day for folks to bring their favourite game, socialize, and talk about practical ways to help.

“We’re very active,” she says, “and there’s lots that people can do. I think we’ll have a great turnout.”

The Play Your Own Game fundraiser for the Stephen Lewis Foundation takes place Saturday, April 25 at 4400 West Hill in NDG. Info: 514-487-0258. For more info on Grandmothers to Grandmothers regional groups visit grandmotherscampaign.org.

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