Sunday, August 13, 2006
One day, an army of grey-haired women may quietly take over the Earth.
— Gloria Steinem
In a room in Ottawa’s Bell Street United Church, the Wakefield Grannies are waiting. Spartan wooden chairs are arrayed in an anticipatory circle, and bare tables are laden with pastries, somosas and fruit juices. The outside temperature is sinking with the late-March sun, but the room vibrates with warmth and barely suppressed excitement.
For the 11 women who make up the Wakefield Grannies, this is a triumphant day. Their brilliant idea — the idea that brought them together and forged an extended family spanning two continents — is about to receive the ultimate validation. Any minute, Stephen Lewis will arrive to pay homage to their efforts on behalf of struggling strangers an ocean away in Africa.
Two weeks earlier in Toronto, the Stephen Lewis Foundation had unveiled an inspired initiative. Called the Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign, it aims to mobilize support for "Africa’s unrecognized heroes" — impoverished matriarchs with the daunting task of raising growing numbers of the 13 million children orphaned by AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.
Extended families are raising nine out of 10 of these orphans. And as more women die of HIV/AIDS, the burden of care is increasingly shifting on to maternal grandparents. In Botswana and Malawi, more than half the orphaned children now live in grandparent-headed households; in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, it’s nearly two-thirds.
"There are situations where grandmothers are looking after five, 10, 15, 20 kids," Lewis had said at the March 7 campaign launch, "their own, and other orphans in the villages who have no environment within which to exist."
What Lewis hadn’t known until just before the foundation’s press conference was that, in a parallel universe along the Gatineau River, a yoga-practising octogenarian had conceived the same idea nearly 18 months earlier. After hearing a South African nurse speak about the grandmothers’ plight, Norma Geggie swiftly recruited 10 women to the cause. And before you could say gogo (the Zulu word for grandmother), the Wakefield Grannies were born.
They’ve since paired up with 10 members of the Gogo Granny Outreach Project in the Johannesburg slum suburb of Alexandra Township, a group of 40 impoverished women who are raising nearly 160 children orphaned by AIDS. The Wakefield Grannies have raised close to $10,000, written letters and exchanged pictures and songs with their African partners. In the process, they’ve developed an unshakable bond with these burdened elders. Now Stephen Lewis, the UN’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, is dropping by to thank them.
They’re a diverse group, these Grannies. "We’re real individuals," says Geggie, the 81-year-old doyenne of one of Wakefield’s most prominent families. "You have no idea."
There’s a social worker, a sculptor, two or three teachers and a filmmaker who, with her husband, is shooting a documentary about the group. Two are French-Canadian, two are English-Canadian. Others were born in India, France, Poland, Germany, Australia, Scotland and England. At various times, four have lived in Africa. Some, like Brenda Rooney, the filmmaker, aren’t even grandmothers. But that’s a mere technicality. Their spirit defines them — that, and their devotion to a band of African women thrust back into the rigours of child-rearing by the scourge of HIV/AIDS.
"These women are doing something that we would shudder at the thought of doing — taking in our grandchildren," explains Geggie. "Their story can break our hearts, but what really warms our hearts is that fact that we’re very connected with them. We feel as though we’re making a difference in their lives, and I think we feel that our lives have been enriched by the contact."
Since March, more than 40 Canadian granny groups — including two other groups in Ottawa — have formed.
"That’s a lovely response," declares Ilana Landsberg-Lewis, the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s executive director. But lest you think it is sufficient, she quickly adds: "Another 150 would be good."
The Wakefield Grannies are in the vanguard of this nascent movement, she says. "They had already started to do what we were suggesting to grandmothers around the country they might want to do."
Brenda Rooney knows they’re special. "I hang out with these 10 crazy women," she says, with fierce affection. "They don’t know just how wonderful they are."
Norma Geggie was a young Australian nurse working in England in 1953 when she and a friend responded to a newspaper ad seeking nurses for a new hospital in Wakefield, founded by Dr. Howard Geggie and staffed by him and two physician sons. A third son, Stuart, who was studying medicine in London, met them before they sailed for Canada. "We said he had been sent to see if we had two heads," jokes Norma, an articulate, diminutive woman with close-cropped grey hair and owlish glasses.
That Christmas, Stuart Geggie made a brief visit to Wakefield. "We were sort of thrown together for about 10 days," Norma recalls coyly. A few months later, Norma left for England, "thinking we’d get to know each other a little better." Stuart proposed as she stepped off the boat. They were together until Stuart’s death in 1997.
After their marriage, Stuart worked at the Wakefield hospital, while Norma devoted herself to raising their three children (one is jazz musician John Geggie) and threw herself into volunteer work.
"She’s a dynamo," Brenda Rooney exclaims of Norma Geggie. Over the past three decades, Norma has written or co-authored with her late husband eight books of area history. She makes few concessions to her 81 years. "If you’re hiking with her," marvels Brenda, who’s a quarter-century younger, "you have to work to keep up."
The story of how Norma conceived the idea for the Wakefield Grannies is a winding tale of serendipity. It begins three years ago, when Brenda and her husband, Robert, who run Rooney Productions from their home near Lac-des-Loups, screened their 2002 documentary on HIV/AIDS in Africa, Condoms, Fish and Circus Tricks, at Wakefield’s United Church. The event raised $1,000 for the church’s AIDS campaign. More importantly, it set events in motion.
In the audience was Thomas Minde, a doctor at Wakefield’s hospital. His parents had just returned from a year in South Africa, where his mother, Nina, and Rose Letwaba, the head nurse at a children’s psychiatric clinic in Alexandra Township, formed a support group for grandmothers caring for AIDS orphans. Thomas Minde urged the United Church minister, Gisele Gilfillen, to contact his mother.
A few weeks later, Nina Minde spoke at a morning service. She showed pictures of the clinic and told the congregation about Rose Letwaba. Rose was planning a trip to Canada. Minde promised to bring her to Wakefield.
And so it happened that one Saturday night in the fall of 2004, Rose Letwaba spoke at the Wakefield United Church. "There weren’t very many people there," Norma remembers. "But Rose spoke very movingly."
An impromptu collection yielded about $900 — a lot for such a small group. But to Norma, it wasn’t adequate. The next day, she spotted Rose and Nina at a reception in town. She told Rose how moved people had been by her talk.
"I said, ’what if a group of women in Wakefield were to partner with these women?’ And they both agreed this would be a marvellous idea." From small encounters are world-shaking movements born.
Alexandra Township, known simply as Alex, is a tightly packed ghetto 12 kilometres from the glittering towers of downtown Johannesburg. Its 800 hectares are home to nearly 340,000 people, most poor and black. One in five households subsists on less than $200 a month.
Five years ago, South Africa’s government announced a $300-million upgrading project. It has slowly improved life, but unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, and violence against women, children and the elderly, remain rampant.
This environment is home to Rose Letwaba’s Gogo Grannies. Most are in their 50s or 60s. A few are older. Many have health problems, and worry they won’t live long enough to raise their grandchildren. Most survive only because Rose’s clinic provides them with bags of mieliepap, an African staple made of maize meal.
And always, like a spectre, there’s the terror that HIV/AIDS, the deadly affliction that robbed them of their children, a disease few of them even understand, will strike down more loved ones, pushing the survivors closer to the precipice.
"Grandmothers of Africa are really in agony," Rose told journalists in Toronto last March. "Whether we like it or not, we have to support these grandmothers."
After Rose Letwaba’s talk, Brenda Rooney kept getting the same message: "Norma Geggie’s looking for you." Brenda and Robert Rooney had moved to the area a decade earlier from Toronto, where both worked in theatre. By the early 1980s, both were active in the anti-apartheid movement.
When Robert directed The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs, the story of a white South African lawyer imprisoned without trial by the apartheid regime, they met the cultural representative of the African National Congress, then living in exile in Toronto. Thus began a fruitful collaboration that peaked in 1998 when the Rooneys staged Mandela and the Children at Toronto’s SkyDome.
After apartheid, Brenda handled media relations during a visit to Canada by Albertina Sisulu, co-president of South Africa’s United Democratic Front and wife of Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela’s mentor. The experience changed her life.
Walter Sisulu had spent 27 years in prison for his politics. Albertina herself had been under house arrest for 18 years. Yet she raised 10 children, five of her own plus five she adopted. "At one point, I said to her, ’How did you do it?’" recalls Brenda, an intense woman of 56 with searching eyes and silver bangs. "’How did you maintain your humanity?’ And she said, ’The greatest fear I ever had was that I would suffer, and no one would ever know. So I’m grateful to you, because you tell my story.’ That made me realize how important it is to tell the stories. It changed me from being a publicist to being a documentary maker."
So when Norma Geggie called and invited her to be a Wakefield Granny, Brenda didn’t hesitate. Within days, 10 women had signed on. "Norma claims it was spontaneous combustion," says Brenda.
Whatever it was, large forces were at work. "Women have so many resources," says Brenda. "At a certain stage in our lives, we have time. What we need to do with it is make what we do, and what we are, meaningful."
When Robert asked for permission to film the group’s meetings, they readily agreed. He says the film — the working title is The Great Granny Revolution — is more than just a documentary about AIDS. The Wakefield Grannies are part of the first generation of highly educated, skilled professional women, he observes. "This has never really happened before. It’s a new phenomenon. And it’s only just beginning."
"I think it’s going to change society," Brenda says. Just ask Norma Geggie. "Women could run the world," she asserts in a tone that brooks no contradiction. "You realize that!"
At their inaugural meeting in November 2004, the Wakefield Grannies drew names from a jar so each could pair up with one of the Alex gogos. At their first fundraiser, the local theatre group, the Wakefield Players, read two one-act plays at the Black Sheep Inn. "It was the worst storm of the season to that date, and the place was filled," recalls Norma. The event raised $2,000. "We realized then we were more than a small group," she says. "We had a whole community behind us."
Last September, a concert on Wakefield’s covered bridge brought in $4,000. The Great Granny Concert will be staged again this fall. In December, the Tooth Fairies, a group of area quilters, raised $1,400. Cheques for $100 started showing up in Norma’s mailbox. Chez Eric’s, a Wakefield restaurant, donated 50 cents from the sale of each cup of specialty coffee.
Even area children pitched in. Eight-year-old Sam Kennelly of Masham collected $168.67 by asking friends to donate money in lieu of birthday presents. Charlotte Connolly, an 11-year-old at Chelsea Elementary School, earned $53 from the sale of AIDS pins.
Norma forwards the money to Rose Letwaba. "We let them determine where the need is," she says. Rose uses some of the money to buy food for the grandmothers and their young charges. Her most ingenious idea was an overnight outing for the gogos, a respite from their care-worn lives. "Most of them had never, ever slept away," says Brenda. "Some had never slept in beds." Afterwards, says Norma, "they just said, ’now we know what heaven’s like.’"
The Grannies write regularly to their gogos. Those who are able write back with news. Not surprisingly, it’s often calamitous. Last March, Linda Gorka, one of the Wakefield Grannies, learned that her gogo had died. "We were all very affected by it," says Norma.
Around the same time, Brenda heard from her African partner, Magdeline Ramakobo, who’s raising her grandson Moses. In her letter, she apologizes for not responding sooner to Brenda’s last missive.
"It arrived at the time when I was so worried about my husband’s health," she writes. "He was sick, and I was running up and down, taking him to the doctor’s, going to the clinics until I just sit down with him because I didn’t have any money any more for doctors and transport to take him to and fro, so my head was spinning." Not long after, she writes, her husband died.
That sort of personal contact is, however, atypical of how most of the new Canadian grandmother groups operate. "We’re discouraging people from twinning," says Landsberg-Lewis. "It’s difficult to maintain, and it’s onerous for the grandmothers in Africa quite often."
Besides, she says, the need is practically infinite. As one project reaches capacity, "we can turn the funds to the next project that comes along that’s equally in need and desperate for support."
Even the Wakefield Grannies are talking about setting aside some of the money they raise so the Stephen Lewis Foundation can direct it where it’s most needed. Just don’t expect them to end their relationship with the Alex gogos. "We made a commitment to individual women as women," says Brenda Rooney. "You don’t decide you have a family, and then 18 months later, think again."
In April, Brenda and Robert Rooney returned to Africa, this time to shoot footage of the Gogo Grannies for their new documentary. For three weeks, they filmed at the East Bank Clinic in Alex, where the Gogo Grannies meet every Wednesday, and in the grandmothers’ own humble homes. Once the gogos saw the Rooneys were genuinely interested in them, "they totally opened their hearts to us," Brenda says.
Brenda’s gogo, Magdeline Ramakobo, walked through oppressive heat to the clinic. "As she arrived, my heart was just going thump," says Brenda. "I started walking toward her, and by the time we were within touching distance, we were both crying."
Magdeline told Brenda of her terrible loneliness since her husband’s death. But she also told her that because of her Canadian friend, her family treats her with respect. "All of the women are so proud of their partner, their friend," says Brenda. "It gives them a sense of meaning and importance in their lives, that somebody cares." Just like Albertina Sisulu, it was critical their stories be known.
Those stories are woven from the small details of everyday lives. Like Petronella Makhanya rising at 5 a.m. each day to hang laundry on the communal clothesline for the four orphans she is raising. Like the delighted pride Caslina Mkhutshula expressed when her twin grandchildren, who she’s raising in a tiny house without water or electricity, earned A averages at school.
The connection to the Wakefield Grannies also helps dissolve the terrible stigma that burdens those with HIV/AIDS in Africa, a shame that leads neighbours to freeze out afflicted families. "I hadn’t understood that until I was actually there," says Brenda.
What impressed her most about the gogos was their huge capacity to love, and to find humour and solace in one another. "They’re just so brave."
On their return to Canada, the Rooneys invited the Grannies, their families and others to view some of their African footage. One scene featured Lucia Mazibuko, who has lost two daughters, a son-in-law and a grandson to HIV/AIDS. Now she’s caring for her two remaining grandsons, one of whom is HIV-positive. At one point Lucia tells Brenda, "I know I killed my daughter." Once she found out what was making her daughter ill, she locked her up so no one would learn her shameful secret.
The interview, says Brenda, "just devastated the Wakefield women. They were sharing the Kleenex box." But it strengthened their resolve. "They’re totally convinced they’re doing exactly the right thing."
Robert Rooney, camera dangling like a third appendage, is the first to spot Stephen Lewis as he approaches Bell Street United Church. "They’re coming," he warns the Grannies.
Humble, gracious and eloquent in equal measure, Lewis quickly puts everyone at ease. He relates his own experience with the Gogo Grannies, whom he first encountered three years ago. Most of his time with them, he says, has been spent sitting under the trees, talking about their lives and the children they’ve lost. "Mostly they want food. Everybody’s hungry."
And he updates them on the Granny Gathering, the summer conference in Toronto his foundation is organizing, which will bring together some 100 African and 200 Canadian grandmothers. "We thought we’d put them up in Wakefield," he jokes. "We’re ready," Brenda fires back.
(In fact, the conference is this very weekend, and afterward, four Gogo Grannies, including Rose Letwaba, will visit Wakefield for three days.)
Lewis expresses his profound gratitude. "This has triggered a chord," he says. "Something is resonating with people deeply and strongly." He pauses. "Thank you all truly, madly, deeply. In my life, this is a highlight."
That’s no less true for the Wakefield Grannies. "You get to realize that with these horrendous situations," says Norma, "the only way to make a difference is just little by little. I hope it spreads worldwide."