Africa: Grannies Help Grannies Cope with Aids

5 May 2008

In the last of a three-part series interviews with AllAfrica, Stephen Lewis, formerly special envoy for HIV/Aids in Africa for United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, tells Cindy Shiner of the resilience of Africans fighting Aids and of the work of his foundation.

What has struck you the most, or inspired you the most, about how Africans deal with HIV/Aids?

Simply the courage, the resilience, the inherent human decency that one sees in the villages and on the ground in the rural areas, and the extraordinary networks of home-based care workers who do such a remarkable job of soothing people living with Aids, monitoring them when they take their drugs and supporting them in every way.

I am very cheered by the strength and resilience at the grass-roots level, which has always been there and comes to the fore at times of adversity like these.

Tell us about the Stephen Lewis Foundation, including your campaign involving Canadian and African grandmothers.

There are now some 200 grandmother chapters in Canada from coast to coast. They have raised in excess of three million dollars in about 16 to 18 months. They have begun to establish a deep solidarity with the grandmothers of Africa in all the countries that we have projects in.

Twelve Canadian grandmothers have just completed a visit to Uganda, Swaziland and South Africa. They visited for two weeks and they will spread the word across Canada at churches, community centers and schools and raise more money and raise awareness. I met with them upon their return and they were so profoundly influenced and moved and determined to respond, and I know from the grandmothers' groups I have met with in

Africa, most recently in South Africa and Kenya, that they, too, are thrilled by this show of support.

The foundation last year raised in the vicinity of 12 million dollars from the Canadian public. We support between 150 and 200 projects in 14 countries. The support goes to women living with the virus, to orphaned children and to groups of people living with Aids, but the grandmother dimension has become a centerpiece of our work.

It has nothing to do with me because it's the work of the people at the foundation, but I'm proud of them because they understood something that others ignored or had been unaware of and it has meant a great difference in Africa.

Was there something or someone in particular that inspired you to focus on the grandmothers?

Siphiwe Hlophe, who heads the women living with Aids project, Swapol, [Swaziland Positive Living] is astonishing. For International Women's Day in Swaziland, 1,800 grandmothers came out and marched, demanding rights from the government and from the king. The minister of health came; the prime minister came. My foundation co-sponsored the event and we actually spoke at the event. Siphiwe has done an astonishing job at making the country aware of grandmothers and of their centrality.

I was in Cape Town when I met with the grandmothers who call themselves Gapa, Grandmothers Against Poverty and Aids. They're a large group of 40 to 50 grandmothers at the center of the work who are really quite remarkable in their determination to sustain their orphaned kids and to keep things going.

I couldn't get over them. Many of them were quite aged, some of them were themselves living with the virus. Several of them had three, five, seven, 10 orphaned grandchildren and other children orphaned by Aids and they were absolutely indomitable. They were so filled with life and resilience and determination to keep these kids going.

For all the grandmothers looking after orphaned grandchildren, you have the almost never-expressed subterranean anxiety about when they themselves will die. They worry about their own death and what will happen to their kids. That's hard, that's very, very hard, but they seem to overcome it... and they do wonderful things for the kids.

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