Left to right are Anne Andrew, Marie Henry, Stephen Lewis, Joyce Cherry, Darcy Billinkoff and Dawn Alfieri at the African Grandmothers Tribunal, which was held in 2013 at the Chan Centre. (photo from Stephen Lewis Foundation)
The Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, in conjunction with the Stephen Lewis Foundation, is supporting grandmothers of sub-Saharan countries in their efforts to raise their orphaned grandchildren, whose parents died of the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Tikun Olam Gogos, one of the local groups participating in the campaign, is hosting the Voices for Africa fundraiser on June 15 at Temple Sholom that will feature the City Soul Choir and a marketplace.
Marie Henry, volunteer administrator of Tikun Olam Gogos, talked to the Jewish Independent about the Stephen Lewis Foundation, the Grandmothers Campaign and Tikun Olam Gogos’ place in it.
“Stephen Lewis Foundation was created 10 years ago,” she explained. “Before that, Mr. Lewis was an NDP politician. After he retired from the Canadian political scene, the United Nations appointed him to look at the AIDS epidemic in Africa. What he saw there was shocking: 18 million children had been orphaned in Africa because of AIDS. Their grandmothers had to step in to raise the children. After he returned to Canada, he was determined to help them. That’s how the foundation started in 2006, and Lewis applied to Canadian grandmothers to support it. He knew they could do it. They had resources, experience, determination and time.”
According to Henry, there are now more than 240 groups across Canada associated with the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign. They all include in their name the word gogos, which is Zulu for grandmothers. “The movement’s already spread to the U.S., England and Australia,” she said.
The funds the campaign gathers go to the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which in turn supports the grassroot initiatives of the grandmothers of AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan countries.
Henry explained how it works. “The foundation can’t give enough money or food or shelter; the need is just too great,” she said. “Instead, the grandmothers have to come up with an initiative of their own that would improve their condition. It could be a small business that needs a startup loan. It could be a community garden to grow food for a number of families, and they need seeds. Or it could be an educational opportunity, to teach the children and their grandmothers how to prevent AIDS or how to access and administer medicines in case they are already infected. Many children are [infected]; they have been infected before they were born. Many grandmothers also need legal help and education to keep the roof over the children’s heads.”
The latter problem stems from the inheritance traditions in some countries where, after a husband dies, his widow doesn’t inherit property, the husband’s family does, explained Henry. Even if the law says otherwise, the husband’s family’s actions are not always lawful. Many of the grandmothers and their orphaned grandchildren live in small villages without access to legal or medical help, and could be kicked out of their homes by the deceased husband’s relatives. So, the grandmothers themselves have to come up with the programs, depending on what they need in their particular country, area or village. They then apply to the Stephen Lewis Foundation for funding.
“There are several regional directors in those countries, all local women,” Henry said. “They read the proposals, visit the people, assess the projects and decide if the money should go to this particular program. A year later, they would check if the program works, if it should be re-funded, or maybe not. The grassroot programs receive all the money – no government of any of the countries involved receives one dollar, no bureaucracy benefits. The foundation keeps its administrative cost to 10%, which is one of the lowest of all charities. The rest all goes to the people who need it.”
Henry herself got involved with the campaign almost by accident. “I was visiting my family in Kelowna,” she recalled. “We went to a farmers market and I saw those beautiful totes. The woman who sold them was a member of one of the Gogos groups. They made and sold tote bags to raise money for the foundation. I loved the idea. I found a group in Vancouver and joined it, but there was a problem. I was the only Jew in the group and, often, their meetings fell on the Jewish holidays, when I couldn’t attend. I decided to create my own Jewish group and, of course, I started with my synagogue, Temple Sholom. Everyone was very supportive. Our group, Tikun Olam Gogos, first met five years ago, in May 2011.”
Currently, the group has 29 members, mostly retired women, some grandmothers themselves, others not. They meet once a month, discuss group business and create the kits for their totes. Several group members are experienced seamstresses who sew the totes of various sizes. Others apply their creativity to the trimmings and beads. Still others are good at sales. Everyone finds something to do that agrees with their personality and skill level.
The group’s tote bags are sold at craft fairs. To date, they have raised more than $120,000 for the Stephen Lewis Foundation. Many of their fundraisers include an entertainment program as well as a marketplace. The June 15 fundraiser is no different: it will feature the choir, under the direction of Brian Tate, and a marketplace of crafts by Tikun Olam Gogos, South Van Gogos, Welisa Gogos and Van Gogos, as well as a silent auction, wine bar and dessert. Tickets are available at eventbrite.ca.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].