Notes

Yebo Gogo

And just when you think we have had all sorts of cool and fabulous guests, we are visited by the Wakefield Grannies, a group of women from Wakefield in Quebec, offering support to AIDS Orphans and their Grandmothers in Alexandra Township, South Africa. They are also affectionately known as the Alexandria Gogos.

On a visit to Quebec in 2004, Rose Letwaba spoke about her work to a small audience in the Wakefield United Church. Rose is a nurse in the health clinic in Alexandra Township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa. The picture she painted was of a whole generation of South Africans lost to AIDS and grieving mothers left to carry the burden of raising their grandchildren to be healthy, educated and socially responsible adults. Rose described a group of 40 such Grannies who were meeting at her clinic for sewing classes, gardening and moral support. Spontaneously, 12 Wakefield women, lead by Norma Geggie (81) came together to help, becoming the first Grannies to link with the Alexandra Grannies or GoGos to use our South African word. In less than a year the Wakefield Grannies were joined by the Concordia Grannies of Rhode Island and the Montreal Grannies. On March 7, 2006, the Stephen Lewis Foundation announced its Grandmother to Grandmother Campaign and at last count there were 30 groups operating in Canada and the United States. The project has become an international movement.

Poverty comes close on the heels of HIV/AIDS as those who should be the backbone of the workforce fall ill and die. The Wakefield Grannies are committed to providing financial assistance to their counterparts in Alexandra. To do this they produce fundraising events; including a concert, a play-reading and a quilts sale.

Each woman also has an individual GoGo to whom she writes letters. It may seem that raising money is the most important aspect of our activities. In fact it did to some of us until we began to receive letters from our pen-pals and from Rose who wrote that “Morale is high in these groups and there is a lot of hope, just the idea and the thought that there are Grannies on the other side of the world who care so much about them, make these groups appreciate life…The sewing club is doing well, they are about to finish their first outfits which include a skirt, jacket and blouse. I am impressed with what they have learned and last week most of them were harvesting their crops. Life goes on. Pass my kind regards to all the Grannies and I wish you all good luck in your endeavour to help African Grannies who are overwhelmed by the pandemic.”

The activities of the Wakefield Grannies help AIDS Orphans and their Grannies in Alexandra Township and the events they produce benefit their North American community. In turn these personal relationships enrich their lives and allows them to play a part in alleviating the devastation of the worst medical disaster in history

The East Bank Clinic is essentially a mental health unit addressing the needs of children identified by their teachers as having problems. Over 150 children attend the East Bank Clinic for counseling at any given time. The behaviour problems of most of these children stem from the compounding influence of poverty, a violent environment and the loss of their parents, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles from HIV/AIDS.

It was as a nurse at the clinic that Rose Letwaba noticed that more and more often the caregiver bringing the child for counseling was a Gogo (meaning ’Granny’ in Zulu). Investigating further, she discovered that these Gogos, many of them still a few years short of claiming their meager government pensions, were often the only adult support for the children. Rose, along with Canadian volunteer, Nina Minde, began to bring these women together for mutual support every Wednesday afternoon and it wasn’t long before there were 40 Gogos meeting for comfort, for sewing classes, or to work in the garden.

(JPG)

These women have survived oppression under the apartheid regime and the riots and shootings during the struggle for democracy. They have endured the isolation that the stigma of AIDS brings to families and the heartache of burying their own children. In old age, with poverty forced upon them, these women have taken up the challenge to raise the next generation. South Africa sits on frail but determined shoulders.

The Alex Aids Orphan’s Project was initiated in 2001 when the staff members at the Children’s clinic became aware of an increase of young patients missing appointments and dropping out of treatment. Large numbers of children were losing their parents due to AIDS related illnesses and were under the care of elderly grandparents.

Since then, Alex Aids Orphan’s Project has provided support for these children and their caregivers. Adding to the financial burden of looking after their orphaned grandchildren, the grannies must parent at a point in their life when they often required care themselves. They must also deal with the loss of their children and the grief of their bereaved grandchildren. In addition to the existing problem for which they came to the mental health clinic, the children are faced with bereavement issues as well as disrupting changes in their lives. Many children are left destitute and older children must leave school to care for younger siblings. In many instances, the children can face the multiple losses of parents, siblings and, in turn, their aged caregivers.

The Programs

ORPHANS’ BEREAVEMENT GROUP

Currently, the clinic is running bereavement groups for children who have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS. The children are able to share their experiences of loss in a safe environment, as well as to raise any other concerns they may have (bullying has been a major issue). These children have often experienced multiple losses such as death of one or both parents followed by one or more siblings. In addition they themselves may be HIV positive. These are extreme difficult issues to deal with and the counsellors are faced with ongoing new challenges, for which there is no guidance in the specialized literature. Children use these weekly sessions to raise issues around bereavement, loss and trauma. They celebrate birthdays together, and so share both sad and happy occasions.

The clinic is hoping to raise money so that these children and their caregivers can go together on a holiday. The children feel vulnerable in many ways and face very uncertain futures. Bereavement groups are divided according to age and running every Monday and every Thursday after school, coordinated by Clinical psychologist and Interns from different universities.

SUPPORT GROUP FOR ILL CHILDREN

There are a number of extremely ill children who have participated in a group for the terminally ill children. The group runs on a weekly basis and is coordinated by the Clinical Psychologist. The aim of the group is to provide emotional and in some instances material support. These young children have lost their parents through the AIDS epidemic and are themselves positive.

SUPPORT GROUP FOR SICK MOTHERS

There are number of HIV positive mothers attending the support group once a week. The group gives them support and helps them cope with the nature of their illnesses and deal with every day life challenges such as prejudice and stigma around HIV; all this while still caring for their children. Some of these women lost their husbands and boyfriends through HIV, while others were physically abused and abandoned by their boyfriends and husbands.

GOGO’S SUPPORT GROUP

This group is for aged grannies looking after their grandchildren after losing their children through HIV related illnesses. The group has been an amazing source of support for caregivers, giving them enough space to mourn and grieve. The aim was to support those that are facing the problems of looking after the sick grandchildren. There is also peer support as the grannies assist each other in coming to terms with deaths from AIDS, as well as the mourning and healing process. The group is also involved in number of activities such as beadwork, (they make HIV awareness badges to raise money for food parcels) and gardening to help them feed their families with fresh vegetables. There are concerns for the children’s future because many caregivers are old and sickly with hypertension and diabetes.

SCHOOL REQUIREMENTS

Some children need candles, so that they can study in the evening (not all houses in Alex has electricity). Other required help to obtain schoolbooks and school uniforms. Funds for school fees and school trips such as leadership camps and visit to the zoo are also often needed.. For the winter season there is a huge need for winter clothes and blankets

FOOD PARCELS

Most families require some assistance with food. The project is feeding 57 families each month. Families on the brink of starvation receive food every 3rd week of the month. These families can be linked with other South African donor families who sponsor food on a regular basis. In addition, financial donations help towards food purchases. Peanut butter sandwiches are offered to children every afternoon as most of them cannot afford lunch boxes or three meals a day.

VEGETABLE GARDEN

There is a vegetable garden at the clinic to provide fresh vegetables on regular basis to the children. Community goats were a problem until the Church of Christ congregation donated a fence and a gate.