A group of women from across sub-Saharan Africa was given a warm welcome from a crowd of Canadian grandmothers in Vancouver today (September 6). The guests are in town to take part in a landmark event at UBC.
Six grandmothers from various African countries are set to provide their personal testimonies of supporting their grandchildren orphaned by AIDS. Their stories will be heard by a crowd of 1,100 and by expert judges as part of the African Grandmothers Tribunal on Saturday (September 7).
As the guests arrived at their hotel in Coal Harbour, they were greeted by a cheering crowd of more than 60 Canadian women that are part of the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign. The Canadian and African grandmothers exchanged flags, hugged, and broke into impromptu dances in celebration of their arrival.
According to Ilana Landsberg-Lewis, the executive director of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, the African grandmothers set to speak at the tribunal are also involved with projects that support their communities.
“The grandmothers will be coming and telling their own personal stories, but they themselves...talk with great feeling about how they are here to testify on their own behalf, on their own story, but they’re also here as ambassadors for the hundreds of thousands of grandmothers, probably more, who are raising 15 million orphaned children on the continent,” Landsberg-Lewis told the Straight by phone.
Since the Stephen Lewis Foundation launched the Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign in 2006, more than 240 groups have been established across Canada, and over $19 million has been raised to support community-based projects established by African grandmothers.
Despite this grassroots assistance, Landsberg-Lewis said these projects on the front lines of the AIDS pandemic receive “desperately inadequate” support from the international community, and that the women behind the initiatives face major challenges.
“The grandmothers themselves have really become experts on a range of responses dealing with the ravages of AIDS, which are effective and sophisticated and thoughtful, and they really work,” she said.
“So the tribunal is really an attempt on the part of the foundation to give a voice to what the grandmothers and organizations working with them have been doing and have come to realize, and to say it’s time. It’s time for everyone to start consulting these women, having them at the table where decisions are being made about their lives, policies and programs...It’s time to recognize their struggles as human rights issues, because that’s what they are.”
At the end of the tribunal on Saturday, a set of recommendations will be made, focusing on human rights issues facing women like the six grandmothers, such as property grabbing, food security, housing, income security, and health care.
“When you think of these grandmothers, who bury anywhere between two and five, sometimes more, adult children to AIDS, and then get up the next morning and have anywhere from two to 10, sometimes more, orphaned children who are bewildered and angst-ridden and sometimes angry, always traumatized—and they persevere,” said Landsberg-Lewis. “It’s really an extraordinary story of triumph of the human spirit over adversity.”
She anticipates that audience members will be inspired to hear the grandmothers’ stories of how they overcame this hardship and grief to become leaders in their communities and help others.
“I’m not sure that people realize the extraordinary resilience of these women,” she said. “It’s incredibly courageous what they’re doing. But also, they really have had to figure out what works, what actually…resurrects your community.
“They all say it, in their own ways: those children are the future, and they will not give up on the future of their families, of their communities and their countries.”
The African Grandmothers Tribunal will take place at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday.
Guests will include David Suzuki and Stephen Lewis. The judges will be Gloria Steinem, Joy Phumaphi, Theo Sowa, and Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.