Published in the Australian magazine Your Life, Autumn 2007 edition
The more I read about her (and there’s plenty on the Internet) the more I regret not meeting Norma Geggie when she visited Australia in April 2006. She wasn’t here having lived in Canada since the mid-1950, she came simply to spend time with family. Among those she caught up with on this occasion was her niece and my best friend, who told me about Norma’s passion, the Wakefield Grannies.
This group of grandmothers of all ages first came together in Quebec in 2004, after Rose Letwaba spoke at Wakefield United Church. The head nurse in a children’s psychiatric clinic in poverty-stricken Alexandra Township (‘Alex’) near Johannesburg. Rose told of the terrible toll being exacted by AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, of the (now) 13 millions children who have been orphaned by the death of their parents from AIDS, of the 50 per cent of these children who now live in households headed by grandparents, and of the grandmothers − gogos in Zulu − who care for nine out of 10 of these children.
Not surprisingly, their return to the parenting role has produced high levels of anguish and stress among the gogos. Many fear they will not live long enough to care for the children into adulthood and there is always the spectre of more family members being struck down by AIDS. The children themselves have been traumatized by witnessing the slow death of their parents.
Rose also spoke she and visiting Canadian Nina Minde had formed in Alex to support 40 of these valiant grandmothers, and it was this that inspired Norma Geggie’s brainwave. “I asked Rose, ‘what if a group of women in Wakefield were to partner with these women in Alex?’ And both Rose and Nina agreed this would be a marvelous idea” Norma explained to Canadian newspaper The Ottawa Citizen.
The results have been remarkable. First, each of the Wakefield Grannies drew from a jar the name of a partner gogo; each writes regularly to this partner. The next task was to set about raising money: Norma now sends regular sums to Rose Letwaba to distribute in line with her knowledge of local needs. And then news of Norma and her 10 fellow-Wakefield Grannies began to spread.
Soon, more grannies’ groups started popping up in Canada, at first slowly then faster following the launch of a Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign in March 2006 by the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which supports grass-roots AIDS projects in Africa. In August 2006, in advance of the XVI International AIDS Conference held in Toronto, the Foundation brought together 200 Canadian and 100 sub-Saharan African women for a two-day ‘Grandmothers’ Gathering’ to consolidate and celebrate the movement. It succeeded magnificently.
There are now more than 140 grandmothers’ groups across Canada and the movement is spreading internationally: to date it has reached the US, New Zealand and Australia. There is currently one group in Australia − leaving plenty of room for more.
Many of the news items about the Wakefield Grannies and the movement they have set in motion quote the words of Gloria Steinem, “One day an army of grey-haired women may quietly take over the earth”. Not all the Wakefield Grannies are grey-haired (although my friend and the newspapers tell me that Norma Geggie is), indeed, not all of them are grandmothers, but there is no doubt the world would benefit from the ministrations of more such generous, compassionate and determined women.
As for meeting Norma Geggie: I’ll clear my diary the next time I hear she’s on her way.