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A welcome in Uganda. The Grandmothers Campaign is “like a fire that has spread.” | photo: Twesigye Jackson Kaguri / Stephen Lewis Foundation

A welcome in Uganda. The Grandmothers Campaign is “like a fire that has spread.” | photo: Twesigye Jackson Kaguri / Stephen Lewis Foundation


grandmothers to grandmothers

by Frances Rooney | December 1, 2008

Harambee is a Swahili word meaning pulling together to ease a burden ... We wish to enter into a harambee relationship with our sisters in Africa, who have often buried their children and had to take on the responsibility of caring for their grandchildren alone with few resources. We are committed to raising funds and awareness within our own community to assist with this heavy responsibility. We also wish to assume an advocacy role, so that our government realizes that the people of Canada expect it to take a leadership role in working for justice in the developing world, and increasing our aid contributions to honour commitments made and not met.

— statement of the Harambee Grandmas Group, Lethbridge, Alberta

HIV/AIDS is gutting African society. Traditionally, adult children cared for both their own children and their aging parents, most of whom could neither save for their old age nor receive any kind of pension.

That generation of adult children – the ones who would help their children and parents alike – are dying. Many – the United Nations estimates up to 70–80% – go home to relatives, most usually their mothers, to die.

Women in their 50s, 60s and 70s take care of their adult children. And when their children die, the women mourn, search for money to pay for burial, and gather in their children’s children to care for them.

Besides the emotional devastation, this means scrounging for food and clothing, selling their belongings, and, according to the Stephen Lewis Foundation, trying to get government assistance that rarely comes. Because of the scope of the disease, many grandmothers try to – and often cannot – find a way to pay for AIDS medicine and funerals for grandchildren.

Grandparents – particularly grandmothers – care for around:

  • 40% of all orphans in the United Republic of Tanzania
  • 45% in Uganda
  • 50% in Kenya, and
  • 60% in Namibia and Zimbabwe


The UN estimates that “13 million children have been orphaned by AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.” Its research also indicated that, in 2007, 2.1 million children were living with HIV worldwide. Nearly 90% of them are in sub-Saharan Africa.

As a result of this desperate situation, Grandmothers to Grandmothers came to be.

The Grandmothers Campaign is a project of the Stephen Lewis Foundation. It was launched in 2006, on March 7 – the day before International Women’s Day. By August of that same year, there were 40 groups.

In 2008, 220 groups with more than 8,000 members span the country – from Whitehorse, to 100 Mile House, to Nelson, to Vancouver, to Calgary, to Timmins, to Tobermory, to Toronto, to Montreal, to Dartmouth, to St. John’s.

Ilana Landsberg-Lewis, executive director of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, describes the strength of the people her organization supports this way: “Africa’s rural villages and urban slums were teeming with older women who had nursed and then buried their own children, had been pummeled by poverty and despair, and had somehow found the courage and energy to become parents all over again – this time, to a generation of bereft, confused youngsters. One extended family at a time, a continent in tatters was being stitched back together by grandmothers.”

Grandmothers to Grandmothers, she writes, “is a tribute to grandmothers from Africa, who have humbled us with their super-human responses to unbearable sorrow and hardship, and to grandmothers from Canada, who have inspired us by reaching across continents to lighten the loads of strangers.”

The names of many of the Grandmothers to Grandmothers groups reflect their connection with their sisters in Africa:

  • OMAS SISKONA — a combination of a German word for grandmother and a Ghanian word for together | Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario
  • Grannies for Mbuyas — a word of the Mashona people of Zimbabwe, mbuya means grandmother or elder | Prince Edward County, Ontario
  • Ubuntu Granniesubuntu means humanity to others | Fall River, Nova Scotia
  • Oomama — from a South African chant meaning “our mothers used to pray” | Oakville, Grimsby, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario

Groups use familiar grassroots activities to raise money: dinners, bake sales, plant sales, community campaigns, walk-a-thons, auctions, yard sales, Scrabble competitions. The Quinte Grannies have produced a 2009 Naked Grannies calendar.

Members get to use the skills they have developed over a lifetime of work at and outside of home, they renew skills they forgot they had, and develop new skills – often using computers.

They speak to schools, churches, service groups, social justice organizations. They put a human face on the issue, they lobby governments and encourage others to lobby governments. They raise awareness.

They also raise money: in two and a half years, over $4 million.

The donations fund grassroots projects in 14 sub-Saharan countries. Projects that support:

  • immediate physical needs like chickens, goats and other food, blankets, soap, housing grants and school fees
  • long-term initiatives that will bring in food or money – community gardens, business skills, and small business start-up financing
  • assistance with the emotional devastation, through grief counseling, grandmother support groups, and relief for the grandmothers’ endless care giving

The grandmothers in Africa have “no help, no support, no money. At this time of their lives, when their energy is less, they have often 10 or 12 children to look after 24/7,” says Mary Anna Beer, advisor to the Grandmothers Campaign.

What do Canadian women – many of whom live in comfortable retirement, who travel, give dinner parties, and wander a beach with the dog – have in common with the haunted grandmothers halfway around the world?

They are grandmothers. (Or, says Penny Lawler, member of Grannies in Spirit on Toronto Island, “Grandmother wannabees, potential grandmothers, or daughters – there are even a few men.”) And the grandmothers, here and in Africa agree, even though most of them have never met: that is enough.

According to Penny Lawler, “Something about the grandmother connection easily transcends culture and class, that allows you to connect with something very basic. The roles are similar even if the conditions are so very different. Our circumstances are so different, we can’t even talk to each other, and yet it’s so easy to ‘talk’ about grandchildren.”

The immense mutual respect of the women on both continents, and of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, ensures the reciprocity of the Grandmothers Campaign. No do-gooder, patronizing operation this.

From August 11–13, 2006, 100 African women joined 200 Canadian women in Toronto at a Grandmothers’ Gathering. The group wrote The Toronto Statement, which was presented to representatives for UNAIDS and the XVI International AIDS Conference. It opens with this paragraph:

As grandmothers from Africa and Canada, we were drawn together in Toronto for three days in August 2006 by our similarities: our deep love and undying devotion to our children and grandchildren, our profound concern about the havoc that HIV/AIDS has inflicted on the continent of Africa, and in particular on its women and its children, and our understanding that we have within us everything needed to surmount seemingly insurmountable obstacles. We are strong, we are determined, we are resourceful, we are creative, we are resilient, and we have the wisdom that comes with age and experience.

In March of 2008, 12 grandmothers from Canada visited grandmothers and projects in Africa. The women who went (donated air miles paid their flight) agreed to spread the grandmother movement by sharing their experiences with groups and organizations.

Meanwhile, existing groups continue to raise money and awareness, and more groups are forming all the time.

“This is exciting,” says Penny Lawler. “It’s like a fire that has spread across the country. I think even the Stephen Lewis Foundation was surprised.”


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