How do we stem the tide of AIDS in Africa?

Linda Hallet of Victoria, B.C. is working with the Stephen Lewis Foundation (SLF) and with groups, Canada-wide, to do just that. Hallet works with a group called Grandmothers to Grandmothers: “A tsunami of Canadian grannies helping a tsunami of African grannies.”

Audrey McLaughlin co-ordinates the Whitehorse group.

“About a year and a half ago,” McLaughlin begins, “I decided I should do something locally, as well, so I started the first Yukon chapter of Grandmothers to Grandmothers.”

The group recently raised $1,800. Andrea Abbott, a local high school student, also co-ordinated an effort that raised $917 in just four hours.

Hallet says the groups were started by Stephen Lewis and his daughter “to help mostly women and female children with the AIDS pandemic.

“If you hear Stephen Lewis speak, you’ll never forget,” she says, poignantly. “The burden is now lying on grandmothers to care for orphans … 13 million in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Generally, it is the grannies who care for the grandchildren … and not just their own [grandchildren], but communities of grandchildren.

“Sometimes there are hundreds in communities,” Hallet says with a gentle urgency and a flood of information that requires no prompting at all.

“Stephen Lewis calls them [grandmothers] the heroes of Africa.”

In 2006, the SLF brought 100 grandmothers from Africa to meet with 100 Canadian grandmothers. Hallet was among them. Since then, the foundation has raised over $4 million.

Funds are used to educate about AIDS as well as provide education for orphans, to purchase goats and pigs for families, to provide food baskets, school feeding programs and community gardens and to provide health care and equip young girls with employment skills. And more.

McLaughlin emphasizes that “you don’t have to be a grandmother” to belong to the group; in fact, she says, “you don’t even have to be a woman.”

Across Canada, 220 groups are engaged in fundraising.

McLaughlin says that she thinks what people like about the organization is that it encourages individual efforts and raises money, but also educates. “It’s a network. The public awareness is a very important part.

“It’s important to note that everything is donated. In saying that, the recipients decide what they need rather than us deciding what they need.”

Hallet describes a village in Uganda that she travelled to, relaying that there were no toilets, no running water …

“When we got there, they had just received 100 mattresses … pieces of foam.” Grandmothers and grandchildren sleep together, she says, adding that grandmothers are often between the ages of 60 and 85.

“What the foundation did is brilliant,” she continues. In Africa, men need to be invited into the groups as the goal is to empower the grandmothers.

The fundraising efforts of groups is having a profound impact, Hallet says. “Just the fact that you’re giving people joy.” Hallet has seen that joy first-hand and is excited to talk about it.

“The grandmothers are heroes,” she says. “Their resilience is amazing.”

“And they keep some joy,” McLaughlin adds.

“They sing. They dance. They praise God,” Hallet says. “They sing in four-part harmony.”

McLaughlin is struck by this indomitable spirit in the face of such hardship. “I honestly would love to understand what makes people survive …”

Grandmothers to Grandmothers is now in 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

McLaughlin says she wants to help grandmothers in Whitehorse, as well. “I really feel that one should act both globally and locally,” she says.

One African grandmother, the woman Hallet met with in 2006, expressed her appreciation for Stephen Lewis: “He was the first man who ever sat down with us … listened to us … did what we wanted.”

Hallet’s response was “That’s my Grannie!”

To learn more about this group, visit www.stephenlewisfoundation.org or e-mail Audrey McLaughlin at audreymc@northwestel.net.