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Gogo is the Zulu word for grandmother. It’s a term that has been adopted by many of the Canadian women who’ve joined hands with their African sisters in the cause of raising the orphans of sub Saharan Africa.

As women of that certain age, matriarchs within our own families, there is much that we share, irregardless of where we live. We cook the family favourites, preserve family history and culture, care for grandhcildren while their parents work, dispense wisdom on topics from financial management to child rearing – and pretend we don’t see them rolling their eyes. We also share the joint plagues of aging bodies and diminished energy.

Where our experiences usually diverge is in the grief that has been visited on our sisters by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. For most of us, HIV/AIDS is something we read about. But the African Grannies have nursed their beloved sons and daughters to their deaths, one after another, after another. A whole generation of parents evaporated, leaving millions and millions of orphans behind to be cared for – not while their parents work, but all day, every day, year after year.

Lesotho KidsThese precious children are the hope of Africa. But they must be fed, must have their health needs seen to, and must be educated.

But their African grannies impoverished and unsupported by the social support network we enjoy in Canada cannot do it alone.

I first became aware of the African grannies in 2001, while traveling in Lesotho. An energetic gaggle of young children was being shepherded down the road by an older woman. I asked our driver if she was the teacher.

No, she is the grandmother. They are orphans, her grandchildren and others from the village. She cares for them all.”

I wondered how.

The woman in the photo at right is also from Lesotho. We asked and she was happy to haveLesotho Granny us take her photo. Nothing asked for, nothing received. A pleasant, stoic woman with an uncommon dignity reverberating off her person.

Later that day we hired a young guide from her village to take us into the mountains. Once we started climbing we quickly became aware of just how sick the young man was. He said it was a cold but HIV/AIDS had already infected one out of three in Lesotho. After he led us safely back down the mountain, David suggested we visit his granny in the hut they shared at the edge of the village.

“Where is your own mother?”

“She is dead.”

“Where is your father?”

“He is dead.’

“Only she and I are left.”

Lesotho WomenWe visited Granny, endearing in the pride with which she displayed her simple home. With a twinkle in her eye she invited us to join her friends in a neighbouring hut for refreshment. They were passing the homemade hootch, delighted when my husband enthusiastically took a swig from the community bottle. Pealed with laughter when the fire lit his throat and he fell to his knees sputtering. They knew it was coming. These people sure love to laugh.

They all wanted their photos taken, we obliged. As we left the party a fellow came running down the path after us. Turns out he was the local “reverend” and suddenly realized that we might have photographed him with the hootch bottle in his hand.

“Could we take another?

Of course we could. He posed, tall and proud while we snapped away.

“Would we destroy the photo with the bottle?”

“Of course we would.”

And we fell in love with these proud, stoic, love-to-laugh human beings.

Consensus seems to be that the birthplace of human life is in the Rift Valley of Africa. If that is so, my roots too are in Africa and I am pretty happy about that.

Oh yes, Granny made money weaving small baskets. There was no pressure, but the hope in her eyes was so stark I’ve no doubt it was the reason we were lured down to her hut in the first place.

I bought one. Cost me a dollar. Less than a cup of coffee.

Back in Canada this year I listened to Dr. Martin Brokenleg talk about generousity. He talked about how desperately our souls need to experience genuine generousity.

“It's not generousity unless we sacrifice something so that we can give. It’s not generousity unless it hurts.”

I am not anywhere near hurting.

Since my African journey I have looked for ways to help. Usually this involves sending money – to greater and lesser effect, I am sure. But throwing money at ngos with big advertising budgets never really does it for me.

It finally came together for me when I heard Stephen Lewis speak. At the time he was the UN Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. He talked about how huge organizations like the Gates or the Clinton Foundations provide mega funding to run massive immunization campaigns or negotiate multi-million dollar deals to bring low-cost anti-retro-viral drugs to the continent. These initiatives are critical, no question about it. But what Stephen noticed was that no one was helping out with the practical needs of on-the-ground fighters like the grannies.

“We almost never think of the grandmothers, yet they are emerging as the unheralded heroes of the continent. They’re poor, they’re old, they live with the inconsolable anguish of having buried their own adult children. They’re tired, they’re hungry, and yet they are fast becoming the true, resilient, magnificent hearts of the struggle of the continent.”

He established the Stephen Lewis Foundation, then in August 2006 launched the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign by bringing 300 African and Canadian grandmothers together in Toronto. Since then more than 200 grandmothers groups have sprung up across Canada. In two years they have now raised more than three million dollars and are actively pursuing their self-chosen mandate to be the voice of the Africa grandmothers in Canada.

On any day of the year there are dozens of fundraising and advocacy initiatives underway by grandmothers in Canadian cities and towns. My own group is called the South Fraser Gogos. There are about 40 of us, working in the areas of fundraising, advocacy, and education.

I personally support the Grandmother to Grandmother campaign of the Stephen Lewis Foundation because:

  • I identify best with grassroots projects that meet people’s immediate needs. These kinds of projects are the primary focus of the Foundation’s work.
  • Over 90% of all contributions make it directly into the hands of the people who can make a difference in Africa. The Canadian Revenue Agency publishes the returns of the Stephen Lewis Foundation. I was impressed. To see for yourself, go to the CRA website and do a search for the Stephen Lewis Foundation, Toronto, Ontario.
  • The Foundation has representatives in Africa who carefully investigate all projects being considered for funding, monitor them once funded, and support them so they grow to meet even greater needs.
  • The dollars do not get caught up in bureaucracy – contributions are at work in Africa within weeks.

I believe in the integrity of the Foundation, it’s leadership and its staff. For more detailed information about the foundation, it’s funding process, and the projects it supports, visit the Foundation website.

But I must come clean about one thing – I am not personally a grandmother yet myself - just a wannabee in waiting working to help some genuine grannies with their hands full already.

Carolyn Usher