My view of the world will never be quite the same.

This past week, a friend and I attended a mind-blowing exhibit at Dennos Museum in Traverse City. It is entitled “Grandmother Power: A Global Phenomenon,” and is based on the work of photojournalist/storyteller Paola Gianturco. She chronicles the stories of grandmothers around the world fighting for a better future for their grandchildren.

I want to tell you a little bit about this grandmother movement, and I want to tell you how you can help – grandmother to grandmother.

The Tragedy of AIDS in Africa and How Grandmothers Help

Paola, a grandmother herself, began her journey of discovery when she was working in Kenya, Cameroon, Swaziland and South Africa. She was shocked to find that 14.8 million children younger than 15 are AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa, and in many countries 60% of them live in grandmother-headed households.

Paola says, “I met women all over the continent and left convinced that Africa is glued together by grandmothers who adopt their grandchildren even though they themselves are too old to earn money, too weak to carry water, too poor to buy food, and too sad to provide comfort.”

When their children are buried, and the funerals are over, the grandmothers gather their orphaned grandchildren and take them home.

These women somehow find a way to protect, feed, clothe and nurture their desperately needy grandchildren, even when it would seem they themselves had nothing left to give. They plant, sew, knit, hug, talk, and even manage to laugh and to dance.

Stephen Lewis, a Canadian humanist and former United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, said this, “AIDS has cut a terrible swath through Africa. Community and family structures were so devastated by the pandemic that children faced separation, isolation, child-headed households.”

“But there then emerged – suddenly, almost miraculously, magnificently – one solid wall of protection, a wall so strong that it withstood all the misfortune heaped on the orphans of Africa. It was the wall of grandmothers. You couldn’t penetrate it. You couldn’t destroy it. It stands today as the protective embrace for the orphan children of the continent.”

Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign

Stephen Lewis and his daughter Ilana Landsberg-Lewis brought stories of the struggles of African grandmothers to Canada and in 2006 a grandmothers’ meeting was called in Toronto. One-hundred African grandmothers from 11 countries joined 200 grandmothers from across Canada. They talked, laughed and cried and made plans. Thus, began the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign.

The Canadian grandmothers set to work with bake sales, tea parties, garden tours, concerts, bingo games, cook-offs, quilt auctions and even a nude calendar! They do whatever it takes to provide small but steady infusions of cash to the African grandmothers.

Whatever they raise is wired straight to the bank accounts of approved grassroots groups in 15 African countries for food; housing; bedding; school fees and uniforms; medical care, HIV counseling, testing, and support groups; job skills and parenting training. The African grandmothers say that knowing they are not alone gives them the strength to carry on.

The Power of Grandmother Heroines

For me, the African story was one of the most powerful and compelling aspects of Paola’s exhibit and book. However, she told other amazing stories of grandmothers in all parts of the world. There are Guatemalan grandmothers receiving training and running a hotline to teach parenting skills and prevent child abuse. Israeli grandmothers monitor West Bank checkpoints to prevent human rights violations.

In the Philippines, Lolas (translation: grandmothers) are women’s rights activists, fighting to raise awareness and prevention of sex slavery. Grandmothers in Senegal run persuasive local campaigns to end female genital mutilation. In India, grandmothers become solar engineers and bring light to their villages. The United Nations is sending African grandmothers to learn solar engineering from the Indian grandmothers.

Across the globe, the story is repeated. Grandmothers, determined heroines, fighting tirelessly to improve lives for grandchildren everywhere.

Do you have any thoughts to share about this story? Do you have any stories of grandmother heroines to share even on an individual, personal level? What do these stories reveal about the power and importance of grandmothers? Please join the conversation.

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