“This is about you. This is about solidarity. This is about sisterhood.”
Zahra Mohamed, the interim executive director of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, included this powerful statement in her talk to the Niagara Nyanyas — a division of the Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign via the Stephen Lewis Foundation — at a luncheon designed to reinvigorate the group. The goal was to both inspire current members to engage and do more, and to increase membership.
Mohamed provided what she described as “a message of hope and resilience” to more than 80 women who listened with rapt attention as the Tanzanian woman spoke. Born during the AIDS crisis in Africa, Mohamed said like millions of others, she was forced to move from community to community, and town to town as a result of the disease’s disastrous effect on an entire generation.
She didn’t dwell on the tragedy, but on hope spurred by the Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign.
Begun in 2006, the campaign aimed to provide support for African grandmothers caring for millions of grandchildren in the wake of AIDS. The goal was international grassroots initiatives. Groups of grandmothers in Canada would raise funds to help support community groups of grandmothers in Africa.
Mohamed opened the talk with gratitude for “the honour and privilege of visiting groups across Canada.” She also offered greetings from grandmothers all over the world, “who consider you to be their sisters.”
“I have seen the impact of the work all of you support,” she said, adding she had a lot to talk about. She stated that the campaign commitment to Africa is, “we will not rest until you rest.”
She said there is a theme of “hope and resilience” running through all the work done by the groups across Canada and Africa — groups extending into the U.S. and the U.K.
She described research that proved the most important ways to help in Africa were community support, relationship-building, and grassroots action taken by the people most directly impacted — grandmothers. “A lot of community-based groups formed to visit affected homes. Who went from home to home? Women, community members, wanting to give back to their community.”
Granny groups across Canada stage fundraising events, and the money is used to support small, meaningful community efforts on the ground in Africa. “Since the beginning of the campaign more than $33 million has been raised,” says Sarah Dopp, manager of the campaign. “Those funds aren’t large cheques — they’re money raised by all of you. All of you give in distinct and diverse ways, not only with money, but also with heart and energy.”
Mohamed described a recent visit to Tanzania, where she met with people leading groups and making community visits. “We would go out early in the morning, walking through the community with Elizabeth, a home-based care worker. It was 35 or 36°C in the morning. She was carrying food, moving from house to house. She knew all of the people by name, had a kit, and sent a nurse if they needed further care,” she said. “In the afternoon she goes back to the central office, and meets with other grandmothers doing work similar to hers.”
She said she was invited to a very formal meeting, the table-banking program, a community-based micro-funding initiative, helping women start their own small businesses. “The fund grows over time and provides women more opportunities to access funding,” said Mohamed. “I’m happy to report this has grown to 35 groups. Each group has started businesses, and is sending kids to school.”
She said the message she hears from the grandmothers is, “we feel good. We feel hopeful. We feel we have a future. This is a very different message from when I left Tanzania. A beautiful school was built from the funds raised by grandmothers to grandmothers groups. Women are hopeful, empowered. Girls in school say, I want to become an engineer, I want to be a doctor. They have elaborate plans on just how they will achieve these goals. There is hope among young women who have had the support of grandmothers.”
Homes have also been built for grandmothers and their grandchildren as a result of this campaign. “They will walk you through their communities and their homes. They are particularly proud of their homes and their pigs,” Mohamed said, laughing — explaining she was raised Muslim, and has never had to take photos of so many pigs.
“They also wanted to discuss access to healthcare, and advocacy for rights in their own communities,” said Mohamed. “They have become activists and advocates, have become counsellors in their own communities.”
“It is inspiring to see what grandmothers in groups can do. It really does move us. It’s so rich,” said Dopp, who also focused on the importance of the friendships that develop “across communities and countries.” She concluded her talk by reiterating, “what you give to the campaign has a deep and lasting impact.”
During a question and answer period after the talk, Sandra Hardy, one of the event organizers and a long-time Nyanya, asked about the Beds WithOut Breakfast campaign. Mohamed explained that BWOB is a nation-wide effort offering sleeping quarters to travelling members of the grandmother campaign for a small donation. There are more than 60 locations in Canada, and an increasing number in Great Britain now as well, said Mohamed.
Hardy closed the talk by saying ‘asante,’ which is ‘thank you’ in Swahili. “We have fun and we do worthwhile things,” she added.
When asked if she feels the event was a success, organizer Cindy Grant said, “we’ll soon find out,” referring to the hope that new members will sign up as a result of the inspiring talk.
Terry Mactaggart, another organizer, said the group is planning to go back to their original focus of two events per year — perhaps bringing back the popular African dinner that “everyone used to love.”
“Anybody is encouraged to donate — bridge parties, garage sales, whatever your creative minds can think up, and we will help,” she added.
Kim Manley Ort is not a member of the group, but said after the luncheon, “it was good to hear about the work they’re doing and how the Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign came about. I was impressed by the community-organized groups that come out of the work and by how quickly the money gets to the people who need it most. I like their emphasis on empowering women.”
Fellow guest Loretta Pietrobon said, “while I am not a member of the Nyanyas I admire their dedication and all the effort they put into their cause. It is more than just fundraising, it is also the care and concern they show for their sisters and fellow grandmothers in sub-Saharan Africa. I know some of the ladies in the group and they are very compassionate about what they do as well as being very passionate while they do it. Of course, when you attend an event such as this you can’t help but feel good, and that you have contributed in some small way. “