Ida Nambeya (left) of the Stephen Lewis Foundation Grandmother Campaign in Zambia and Nelson Grans to Grans Cynthia Quinn-Young find empowerment in meeting one another.

Grandmother bond has no boundary

Volunteer work can rebuild communities and Nelson Grans to Grans is doing just that in African communities stricken by HIV and AIDS.

Volunteer work can rebuild communities and Nelson Grans to Grans is doing just that in African communities stricken by HIV and AIDS. Nelson Grans to Grans is hosting a regional gathering on Saturday. The event features the film African Grandmothers Tribunal: seeking justice at the frontlines of the AIDS crisis, about the 2013 tribunal (held in Vancouver) of women from Uganda and Swaziland which premiered at the International AIDS conference this July in Australia.

The film highlights the courage of these grandmothers as they act as agents for social change in their plight to care for their orphaned grandchildren, in the midst of grieving the loss of their own children due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa.

Ida Nambeya, a field representative for the Stephen Lewis Foundation will be joining the gathering with Nelson group original member Cynthia Quinn-Young. The meeting will provide empowerment for both. The grassroots organizations have provided grief counseling, education for children and food packages. The support of other people has changed the mindset of the grandmothers and the community.

Nambeya said when she first started as a field representative in 2006 AIDS had stricken African communities making them “miserable”. The stigma attached to HIV/AIDS isolated grandmothers leaving them with little hope often in a desperate situation.

“In one village an 80 year old grandmother had lost all 10 of her kids and was caring for her 11 grandchildren,” said Nambeya. “How was she going to feed them? She first met me with tears and said, “When am I going to die?” These grandmothers were vulnerable, desperate and alone, stigmatized in their communities that they have bad luck to have all their children die. In one community they bury their dead behind their house like flowers, not in a cemetery.”

Nambeya said once grassroots organizations began mobilizing treatment and resources the community mindset began to change.

Now instead of greeting Nambeya with tears, they greet her with smiles. The assistance has helped settle their minds so a woman feels she actually has something to contribute.

“They are so happy as their children are getting an education and there are food packages to feed her grandchildren,” Nambeya said. “HIV brought so much insecurity” a parcel of land would sit unused.  “A grandmother would have a parcel of land beside her house and not think to plant a garden. Now they are growing vegetables and are involved with income growing associations. When I meet these women at the markets they are so excited to show me the quarter of a dollar they have managed to earn.”

She explained while the dollar value is low, the esteem value is high. The empowerment is rebuilding communities where elders are once again sought after for respected advice.

“Feeling safe and confident they are once again becoming the community counsellor with people coming to drink water in their house again,” said Nambeya. “Before I saw grandmothers living in a house that looked like it was going to collapse. I am so proud of them.”

In Africa, many grandfathers are not present for various reasons but Nambeya gives her thanks to the Canadian grandfathers. “They are there too in Canada.”

“The African grandmothers have been leaning on the Canadian grandmothers for support.”

While Nambeya, 43, is not a grandmother, she is the widowed mother of two biological children and an adopted son due to AIDS. “I know how hard it is,” she said. “I’ve lost a brother and a husband.”

In 2003, while working as an AIDS counselor, she tested HIV-positive. Her vocal activism for people living with HIV and AIDs gained her the role of director of community outreach at the Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia. Her leadership and activism earned her a fellowship at the Coady International Institute in Halifax where she was awarded the Katherine Flemming Award for International Development.

Nambeya has come to Nelson to meet the regional Grans to Grans face to face. “These [women] are the powerhouses and to be with them to get to know exactly what happens; and to show our gratitude,” she said. “African women are quietly asking me how the Canadian grandmothers are doing. ‘Are they tired? Are they continuing?’ And coming here, I can tell them that they are.”

Quinn-Young echoed the sentiment that getting together is empowering and gives them purpose knowing they are making a difference. “It fires us up; we are not getting tired.”

Having recently retired Quinn-Young helped form the Nelson branch in 2006 after a friend heard Stephen Lewis speak. “We know the money is going directly to the communities. It’s a hugely worthwhile organization and the Nelson branch has raised over $170,000.”

The 240 Canadian grandmother groups like the Nelson Grans to Grans support African grandmother sisters and since 2006 have raised over $21 million dollars going directly to the grassroots.

Nelson Grans to Grans next fundraiser is November 9 with an African dinner, music and a silent auction.

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