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Grandmothers unite to help African orphans

December, 2009

It’s an unusual gathering of activists. The room is warm and comfortable, the walls adorned with paintings, picture frames, bookshelves. The lighting is soft, and gentle murmurs rise and fall in volume. The guests are seated around the room, forced to the walls in an effort to make space for the others.

Through the whistling of the kettle comes the delicate but firm tapping of a teaspoon on porcelain. My grandmother, Thérèse Bourque Lambert, summons everyone as the whispers abate. It is time to start the meeting of the West Hill Grandmothers Group for AIDS in Africa.

The West Hill branch of Grandmothers to Grandmothers was started in October 2006.

Grandmothers in Mnjale

There are 18 million AIDS orphans in Africa. When their children die, grieving parents are forced to take up the mantle of parenthood again and raise their grandchildren, some of whom have HIV/AIDS.

The West Hill Grandmothers to Grandmothers fundraise and give AIDS awareness speeches at schools, residences, senior centres, churches and universities on behalf of the Stephen Lewis Foundation for AIDS in Africa. They host Play Your Own Game Days and luncheons. They recently participated in Stephen Lewis’s Dare campaign, in which loved ones sponsor you for fulfilling a challenge they have set. My uncle dared to run the New York Marathon and managed to raise $3,000 for the cause.

In addition to the work they do for Stephen Lewis, the West Hill Grandmothers are encouraged to undertake individual projects; theirs support families in South Africa and Malawi.

In July, the grannies in the village of Mnjale, Malawi, encouraged by Canada Fund, applied to their government for NGO registration in order to get further funding. Having expanded beyond their village, they needed to elect a new name for their fledgling foundation: They chose Theresa, after my grandmother.

The November 28 meeting was held in honour of a visitor from Johannesburg, South Africa. Twenty grandmothers, one grandfather, one student and a daschund gathered to greet her and pepper her with questions.

Rose Letwaba is a nurse specializing in psychiatry who works for Sparrow Rainbow Village in Gauteng, South Africa. The village, which can accommodate 300 patients, houses a hospice for adults and children with HIV/AIDS as well as a Children’s Home and Creche for orphans. They offer education, training, and counselling as part of their Outreach and Grannies initiatives. Like the Montreal grannies, they support grandmothers who care for their AIDS-orphaned grandchildren by providing food, medical care, and emotional support. Seventy per cent of the staff are former patients, and some continue to receive care.

The name Sparrow comes from the Gospel of Matthew: “His eye is on the Sparrow, I know he watches me (Matt., 10:29).” For every person that died at Sparrow the group used to nail a small metal bird to the tree. “We don’t do it anymore,” Letwaba said. “It was too depressing. The whole tree would be filled with sparrows.”

The West Hill Grannies have shared solidarity with Letwaba’s group for three years.

“Nina has a bathtub full of squares,” my grandmother proclaimed eagerly. “Jan has a basement full. I have a cupboard full and another big bag.” These squares are to be knitted together into blankets on their arrival in South Africa. Blankets, especially in winter, are not only used for sleeping. They are to be worn continually throughout the day, a perpetually protective garment. “What you’re doing here has gone beyond the group you support in [the township of] Alexandra, Johannesburg,” Letwaba told us. “Now the grandmothers over there are meeting together and making blankets for those with HIV.

Therese Bourque Lambert, sitting in the middle, surrounded by the West Hill grandmothers

“What we have seen with the knitting is that it has really promoted a sense of togetherness, making them learn about teamwork. It’s not just a matter of keeping them warm, but of bringing them closer to each other. You might think it’s a piece of wool, but it goes beyond that.”

During a visit to a preschool, Letwaba saw the children napping after lunch. “There were 50 of them in a hall,” Letwaba said, “all covered in these little squares.” She told them that the squares had come from across the Atlantic Ocean. They ­didn’t believe her.

The West Hill Grandmothers presented Letwaba with a colourful wrap composed of knitted squares. “I’ve seen a style like that on models!” someone said.

One member worried the gift was too colourful. “My grandmother wouldn’t have worn that,” he said – and received scandalized looks.

“We’re bright, we’re funky,” came the reply. “We’re free spirits!”

Originally Letwaba worked at a clinic with the grandmothers as a psychiatrist. She now does managerial and support work when necessary at Sparrow, which continues to support the grandmothers of Alexandra, or Alex. Sparrow offers them free transport, the use of its chapel for funerals, and food from their gardens.

The West Hill Grandmothers will continue to send the squares to Sparrow and lend their voices in support of the organization’s bid to receive funding from the Stephen Lewis Foundation in 2010.

“I look around and I see how people have started to become more alive and involved. Whenever we meet, someone says this is uplifting. More grandmother groups have to be spawned,” Nina Minde said.

January 13 from 2 to 4 pm at the Westmount Library, a panel of four will speak about the movement and try to raise awareness among families in the area. The panel will include Thérèse Bourque Lambert, Nina Minde, Jan McConnell, and Biatha Kayitefe, the daughter of a woman caring for 18 orphans in Rwanda.

February 20 a meeting of all the Montreal grandmothers groups will be held at West Hill. March 13 the West Hill group hosts a Celtic Concert at Westmount Park United Church. Info: 514-487-0258 or theresebourque@gmail.com

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