Grandmoms raise 10 million for African AIDS

Canadian grandmothers raise $10 million to help African grandmothers protect children from the tragic AIDS pandemic

By Jennifer Cook Baniczky
Ottawa, Canada  

(Grandmother Jennifer Cook Baniczky writes adult and young adult novels under her maiden name Jennifer Cook and her website is:  Email: — below she presents a powerful true story of the heartbreak and courage of grandmothers in sub-Saharan Africa as they cope with the terrible results of the AIDS pandemic. — Carl Dow, Editor, True North Perspective.)

I am a member of the Capital Grannies, who are part of the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign raising funds for projects in sub-Saharan Africa to assist African grandmothers.

In May 2010, I was lucky enough to be chosen to go to Manzini, Swaziland, with a group of 42 Canadian grandmothers from across Canada, to witness a gathering of 500 African grandmothers from 13 sub-Saharan countries.  These grandmothers represented the many African grandmothers who are raising their grandchildren orphaned by the AIDS pandemic, and we were representing the 240 groups of Canadian grandmothers who have so far raised more than $10 million to assist them. 

The African grandmothers are experts on the pandemic as they live in its shadow every day, as it devastates their families and their countries removing the middle generations, who are the teachers, doctors, nurses, farmers and parents. For example, statistics from 2000 show that in Zambia, an unbelievable 13,000 teachers died of AIDS, 16 percent of the children had lost one parent and 14 percent both parents.

At the gathering, we listened to the grandmothers’ stories as they had all lost sons and daughters to HIV/AIDS and are now the prime providers for their grandchildren. They spoke of the hardships, both economic and emotional.

These African grandmothers are the most amazingly strong women who have been dealt a stunningly hard blow in their senior years, when they expected to sit back after bringing up their own children, and enjoy their grandchildren.

For a moment, imagine you are an African grandmother. You have nursed your sick adult children and watched them die. This is catastrophic enough, but now you are left with the burden of caring for your young grandchildren until they are adults. Probably your house has two rooms, no running water and an outhouse in the back.

Your grandchildren are grieving for their lost parents, one of the teenagers is “acting up” to dull his pain — missing school and staying out late with his friends.  An older girl helps after school with the little ones but she misses her mom very much and cries herself to sleep.

Of course, your older grandchildren can only go to school if you have the money to buy them school uniforms, shoes, notebooks and pay school fees — usually school is only free for grades one and two.  You may be lucky enough to receive a small pension, depending where you live, but it does not cover such costs, in fact you are lucky if it buys you all one meal a day.

One grandmother I met was caring for fourteen grandchildren ranging in age from toddlers to teenagers.

This is where the 300 projects assisted by the Stephen Lewis Foundation (SLF) come in. All the 500 grandmothers attending the gathering received help from different projects in their home countries.  

A project is already in place before it seeks funding. The SLF sends a staff member to visit and review and once accepted the project receives direct funding within a few days. These projects cover a variety of things — large and small — such as funding for school fees, uniforms and shoes; food, house repairs - sometimes making bricks to build new houses.  The Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo receives funding, Big Shoes a paediatric palliative hospice in South Africa, and the Women’s Legal Resources Centre in Malawi. The Tateni Home Care Nursing Service, also in South Africa, assists over 300 AIDS patients as well as counseling and nurturing several hundred orphans, helping teenagers with homework and holding weekly discussion groups on such subjects as sex, AIDS and overall support. 

While in Johannesburg, I visited the Ekupholeni Mental Health Centre and met a group of grandmothers who receive professional counseling on grieving, childcare, nutrition and medical treatment for their grandchildren. More than anything they enjoy meeting each other for the fellowship and to discuss their problems. They do beading together to generate income and receive a balanced meal. 

We joined in as they cried, sang and danced to relieve their tensions and to give each other courage to carry on, as many are still shunned by their families and neighbours because of the stigma of HIV/AIDS. 

We visited Elena’s home, a shack of two rooms, which she shares with three grandchildren, one of whom is HIV positive.  She came to the gathering and thoroughly enjoyed the brief respite. Another grandmother, Alice, explained to me how her grandson had been so sick and so skinny but now was well enough to attend school  — to have a future.  Ekupholeni helps directly more than 10,000 people annually and many more indirectly.

All the grandmothers are determined that their grandchildren shall grow up strong and have a good education, because one day they will no longer be there. This is a great fear because already there are many families without adults — the caregiver is a teenager bringing up siblings on her own.

At the gathering the grandmothers attended workshops on HIV/AIDS and Poverty; Economic Empowerment; Social Security and Violence.  They exchanged stories and found that many problems were similar whether they lived in Zimbabwe, Malawi or Ethiopia. While it was a woman from Kenya who talked about elder abuse and accusations of witchcraft, and another about the disinheritance of orphans at the death of their father, others could easily relate.  Another grandmother was surprised to learn that white people also suffer from HIV/AIDS.  They were also amazed that we cared even though we lived so, so far away. We all bonded as we shared hugs ­— I have never been so hugged, it was wonderful.

One of the workshops I attended was about how and when to tell your grandchild that she is HIV-positive.  One elderly grandmother told her story between sobs that she never told her son and then he married two women, infecting them both. She has never forgiven herself for remaining silent.

In the evenings we attended elegant dinners, the first hosted by the Queen Mother of Swaziland. The second was a Cultural Night when the African grandmothers dressed in their national costumes and danced and sang. We Canadian grandmothers had a bit of a dilemma but our singing was well received.

The last day of the gathering we marched through the streets of Manzini — old grandmothers with sore feet, cheeky young men, cheerful young women with babies on their backs and some shy older men, and dispersed in the crowd the Canadian grannies.  After a box breakfast, we gathered in the large hall where a pastor led hymn singing. By then the crowd had swelled to about two thousand with the arrival of the grandmothers from the countryside. African women love to sing and religion is a major source of comfort. We had three hours of speeches, concluding with the reading of the Manzini Statement. We Canadian grandmothers promised solidarity with our African sisters to help realize their demands: laws and policies to secure them personal security, human rights, economic independence and the means to turn the tide of HIV/AIDS in their communities.

We kept this promise in November 2010 on Parliament Hill in Ottawa when a large group of grandmothers attempted to sway the Standing Committee for Industry on Bill C-393 — Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR). This is a private member’s bill to streamline the process of sending anti-retroviral drugs to Africa and other emerging nations. Although the essence of the Bill was rejected in committee, the work continues on these reforms as it goes for Third Reading in the House.  The committee members were surprised that the Grandmothers across Canada are united and we are a force to be reckoned with. We will keep up the pressure. 

The Stephen Lewis Foundation and the grandmothers are turning the tide, but the Foundation receives over a hundred proposals a month and there is a backlog of 1,000 projects in-waiting — so many people need our help.

The global recession has hit Africa in a diabolical way as funding from other foundations and governments has been pulled back. PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) — Bush’s legacy to Africa — has been flat-lined so no more money is being put in and what there is will be used for prevention, which is a death sentence for those who can no longer continue to receive treatment with anti-retroviral drugsAt last month’s conference of the Global Fund for Sub-Saharan Africa for fighting malaria, TB and AIDS, the request for $19 billion was decreased to $11.7 billion – not even bare bones.

However, we grandmothers will continue to keep our promise to the African grandmothers in Manzini as we work together step by step.