By Sheila Fahlman, Grandmothers 4 Grandmothers Regina
This past year, I was fortunate to be among 22 women selected to travel with the Grandmothers’ Campaign to Ethiopia, Rwanda and South Africa. The trip is an initiative of the Stephen Lewis Foundation (SLF) and the Grandmothers to Grandmothers groups that support the foundation. For me, the experience provided a deeply moving opportunity to meet African grandmothers, and to see, first-hand, inspiring grassroots projects that are turning the tide of HIV/AIDS in Africa.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the HIV/AIDS pandemic has hit particularly hard in 15 countries. Our visit took us to three of these countries. The trip was carefully planned with major input from the grassroots organizations we would visit, mindful of the burden that hosting visitors could place on them. This is one reason why our trip was not about volunteering, but instead focused on meeting with grannies, building relationships, and learning.
Table Banking in Addis Ababa, Ethipoia - Photo by Alexis MacDonald, Stephen Lewis Foundation
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, we met with Negem Lela Ken New (Tomorrow is Another Day), an organization that provides skills training to women living with HIV/AIDS. While there, we learned about the many important programs they offer, including their Village Savings & Loan program, more commonly called ‘table banking’. The revenue the women earn from income-generating projects is brought to this bank for deposit. When any of the women require a loan to invest in their work, they can borrow from this bank. There is also an emergency fund to which the women contribute for those times when they find themselves with unexpected costs such as medical care.
Our second stop was Kigali, Rwanda. This beautiful city is home to the Rwanda Women Network (RWN). Formed over 15 years ago, RWN works to empower women through grassroots community programs. It was learning about their volunteer paralegals that captured my heart. Through RWN, grandmothers infected and affected by AIDS and the genocide, find the strength and motivation to learn about laws related to women’s rights. Then, through community drama they educate other men and women in the Kigali area, and work with women at risk of losing property and family.
Community Drama in Kigali, Rwanda - Photo by Alexis MacDonald, Stephen Lewis Foundation
Finally, our group learned about the value of peer support and mentoring at a granny sewing school in Durban, South Africa – a project of the Hillcrest AIDS Centre Trust. The grannies and their instructor explained the growth of the initiative from a single sewing machine for the entire group, to the many machines we saw that day. Like many of the projects with which the Stephen Lewis Foundation is partnered, Hillcrest works in many areas – poverty alleviation, home care, and income generation to name a few. Hillcrest is also home to a ‘yarn bombed’ Jacaranda tree. A replica tree has been created at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg. Together, the two trees represent the solidarity between the Canadian grandmothers and their African sisters.
Granny Sewing School in Durban, South Africa - Photo by Alexis MacDonald, Stephen Lewis Foundation
During this remarkable trip, I witnessed first-hand how grassroots groups are essential to the lives of these African women, providing everything from peer support to financial training and basic needs. To me, the women we met with are remarkable for their strength, resilience, creativity, leadership, and so much more. They have inspired me to continue my work to raise awareness and funds on their behalf, in order to help turn the tide of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Stephen Lewis Foundation launched the Grandmothers Campaign in response to the emerging crisis faced by African grandmothers as they struggled to care for millions of children orphaned by AIDS. The Campaign aims to raise awareness, build solidarity and mobilize support in Canada for Africa’s grandmothers. The Grandmothers Campaign has evolved into a dynamic and responsive national movement, with more than 240 grandmothers groups across the country, including 9 groups in Saskatchewan in Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert, Moose Jaw, Swift Current, Bjorkdale, Nipawin, Shellbrook and Gull Lake.