Canada AM, by CTV.ca News Staff
They are overlooked members of society and unrecognized heroes. They are the millions of African grandmothers looking after their orphaned grandchildren with little money, little food and little help.
But while these women bear the enormous emotional burdens, few around the world do anything to respond to the orphan crisis.
Some 14 million children have been orphaned by AIDS in Africa, and the number continues to rise.
To put that into perspective, that is more than all the children in Canada, Ireland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark combined.
Canadian Stephen Lewis, the United Nations’ special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, describes these grandmothers as the silent victims of the disease.
"Every time I go back to Africa I see the carnage. I visit the huts where women are dying in the presence of their children," he says.
"What the Western world has so failed to do is to respond on an emergency basis to a huge human apocalypse. There’s no other way of describing it."
The grandmothers, who Lewis says are "so impoverished and so frantic for support that they are emotionally decimated," often bury their sons and daughters and become mothers again to the children left behind, many of whom also suffer from HIV/AIDS.
Lewis’ foundation brought one such grandmother from South Africa to Toronto this week to launch the Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign.
Lucia Mazibuko, 52, lost two daughters to AIDS and was left to take care of two grandchildren, one of whom died from the pandemic.
She told CTV’s Canada AM Wednesday losing your children is the toughest thing anyone can face.
"They were my breadwinners. They were old enough to take care of me. So now they are gone, and I’m starting to struggle again to be a mother to their children."
Mazibuko was accompanied by Rose Letwaba, a nurse in Mazibuko’s hometown who started a program called Gogo Granny Outreach. (Gogo means grandmother in Zulu).
The program offers counselling and helps grandmothers buy food, water and repair their rickety homes.
"When I first met Lucia, I realized she’s human, she needs to talk about her losses. She needs someone to take her through the loss and the grief, and that’s why I started it. And it just makes so many other people aware that grandmothers are human beings as well. They’ve got feelings," Letwaba said.
"Grannies are supposed to be enjoying their old age, having a cup of tea. But the situation is not like that anymore. Grandmothers are back to preparing lunch boxes, attending school meetings and doing all the house chores."
There are several groups in Canada that have started charities and raised money to help these African women.
Sharon Maher, a 67-year-old great grandmother from Saskatoon, started Grandmothers 4 Grandmothers Fundraisers Inc. after hearing Lewis speak so passionately about the plight.
"I started musing on what I would do if I were in the same situation, and it became absolutely part of my being that I had to do something," she said on Canada AM.
"So along with a friend, Orla Lockerbie, we talked back and forth and looked at ways that we might be able to help. And finally, we just decided we had to get some like-minded women together and we would fundraise. That that was our sole purpose, that we would raise money to help these grandmothers in their extreme poverty and need."
Maher said grandmothers are an "untapped resource."
"Most of my friends and my acquaintances are well enough off that we can certainly donate, and what we really needed is an easy vehicle or easy avenue to do that," she told CTV.ca.
"Those women need more than a handout once in a while."
Mazibuko said it warms her heart knowing there are women like Maher.
"I’m so happy. Really, I’m so happy, and I just want to thank them and to thank Mr. Stephen Lewis because he’s the one who organized this."
While no figures exist on how many children have lost parents to AIDS, estimates suggest 18 to 20 million kids younger than 18 will be orphaned in Africa by 2010, with a high percentage of them due to AIDS.
In August, a Grandmothers’ Gathering event will be held in Toronto prior to the International AIDS Conference, bringing together grandmothers from Africa and Canada. The African women will speak about their lives in the context of AIDS and share their needs, and the Canadian grandmothers will discuss how they plan to respond to these needs.
For more information about the Stephen Lewis Grandmothers to Grandmothers program, click here
Here is a list of six Canadian grandmothers’ groups:
* CanGo Grannies, based in Kamloops, British Columbia. * NanGo Grannies, based in Nanaimo, British Columbia * Creston Go Go Grannies, based in Creston, British Columbia * CanDo Grannies - Squamish Pod, based in Squamish, British Columbia * Grandmothers 4 Grandmothers Fundraisers Inc., based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan * The Wakefield Grannies, based in Wakefield, Quebec
For more information about the organizations, check out: Stephen Lewis Foundation
To get involved by connecting to an existing grandmothers group or starting your own group, contact:
Shabnam Tashakour, 416-533-9292 ext 234; email: email@example.com
You can donate to the Stephen Lewis Foundation online by clicking: Donate online
You can also donate by phone at 416-533-9292 or by mailing a donation to 260 Spadina Avenue, Suite 501, Toronto ON M5T 2E4, Canada.