GrandmaLink - Africa
Monday, June 29, 2015 at 12:42AM
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If it’s true it takes a village to raise a child, does it matter that the village is on the other side of the world? When Shirley Schalloner returned to Red Deer from a trip to Africa in 20014, she remained awestricken by the joy of life despite the extreme hardships she had witnessed in the people there. Serendipitously, not long after that trip, Schalloner attended a public lecture delivered by former politician and diplomat Stephen Lewis.

“His passion and his anger on behalf of the grandmothers in Africa is moving, “ Schalloner says. “He describes them as the unsung heroes.” Consequently, she was inspired to start a local organization to help the grandmothers in Africa raising children orphaned by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

With a scarcity of resources, care of the millions of orphaned children has fallen to these women. In many instances the grandmothers – while grieving the loss of their adult children - are responsible not only for their grandchildren but other bereaved children in the community, as well.

The Stephen Lewis Foundation launched the Grandmother to Grandmother initiative in 2006 as a response to the humanitarian crisis. An A 2006 UNICEF report state that although HIV has reached nearly every part of the world, sub-Saharan Africa has been hit the hardest. The region is home to nearly two-thirds of the world’s people living with HIV. It is also home to over 48 million orphans, 12 million of them parentless as a result of the AIDS epidemic. The report also cites studies linking better outcomes for children who remain close to their biological family, They are more likely to be well cared for and have a greater chance to go to school consistently, regardless of poverty level.

Along with raising awareness of these issues, the campaign builds solidarity between the African grandmothers and their counterparts in over 240 Canadian grandmother groups, including Grammalink-Africa in Red Deer.

Schalloner says the local group has approximately 20 active members, and a volunteer list that numbers 80 people. Different events support the Grammalink -Africa mission: to create awareness of the struggles faced by the African grandmothers and to fundraise for the Stephen Lewis Foundation Grandmother to Grandmother Campaign in order to bring much needed resources to the African families.

The Fabulous Fabric Sale is one of several Grammalink-Africa events, raising almost $8,000 to date. The donated fabric and yarn are popular with quilters, crafters, and sewers. Schalloner says Grammalink-Africa members were surprised and pleased to discover people involved in other charities put the fabric to good use for their programs. For example, Days for Girls International purchases fabric to make feminine hygiene kits for African girls who are otherwise forced to miss valuable school days each month.

Other fundraisers include a Scrabble Benefit, a Mac & Cheese Lunch held in June and a Chili Lunch that takes place in October. Local ceramics club members make and donate the bowls, which attendees of the unique event get to keep afterward.

Since 2008, over $113,700 has been raised by the Canadian groups to assist with practical and immediate needs such as food, bedding, housing, transportation, and school uniforms and supplies. The Stephen Lewis Foundation works with grassroots groups in Africa to provide HIV awareness, bereavement, and parenting counseling, and to help develop financial sustainability through business skills training and micro-financing projects.

Funds have supported sustainability projects such as the purchase of a brick-making machine for a community in Uganda. Young people learn trades and are building “granny” houses. “They are also learning very practical skills, such as how to build coffins, “ notes Schalloner. In a land ravaged by illness, families want to provide dignified burials for their loved ones.

One of Schalloner’s lasting impressions is of the African peoples’ resilience in the face of challenges. “Sometimes, people point out that we have plenty of problems in our backyard, so why do I involve myself in problems in Africa? I think it’s part of knowing I am a global citizen. I grew up in very fortunate circumstances,“

she says, contrasting her situation to that of many of the African grandmothers. “I have a comfortable life, plenty to eat, public health care and education. I’m able to receive a pension, and I have control over my life. To be born in Canada is like winning the lottery: we have more than enough. There are safety nets here that don’t exist in Africa.”

Pointing out the items created or donated as a result of the Fabulous Fabric sale that provide assistance for local charities and shelters, she says, “We all try to do what we can from our little part of the world.” Having met some of the African grandmothers, the bond of love between them and their grandchildren moves you to be involved.”

Grammalink-Africa volunteer Faye Hughes of Red Deer says empathy for the African women inspired her to become active in the local organization. “They have such strength and courage, “ she says. “As a grandmother I know what it’s like to be concerned about what the grandchildren will have to eat, where they will go to school, and that they have a decent place to live.”

 In 2011, members of Grammalink-Africa and other members of the public learned first-hand the parallels between grandparents in Africa and Alberta.  A visiting grandmother/granddaughter duo visited Red Deer and shared stories of their struggles in the face of the health epidemic in parts of their homeland.

Last year, the Grandma to Grandma Campaign organizers asked Canadian groups to nominate a representative to travel to Africa. The 23 nominees paid for their trip expenses, and also committed to speaking on their return to other groups and organizations about the experience of the African families.

Schalloner says that despite the challenges, the older African women are strong leaders and advocates in their communities. “These women have been disenfranchised; they are grieving for their children that have been lost in the HIV epidemic. Nevertheless, they are advocating for justice, for their rights, and to be allowed to stay on their land with their grandchildren.”

Like grandmothers the world over, they worry about the future for their grandkids. Schalloners says that many of the children have been traumatized by their experiences. While they initially needed food, shelter, and healthcare, they also require education and life skills training. As the caretakers, the grandmothers have an enormous role to play in the future of Africa. “The women may have up to 15 kids living with them. They see it as a venture of the whole community, “ she says.

Schalloner says that the humanitarian, author, and retired senator and general, Romeo Dallaire said it best: “Are the African children less human than ours?"

And Schalloner affirms, “Our mantra is that we will not rest until the African grandmothers can rest."

Published in Red Deer Advocate May 2015. May not be reprinted without author's permissin.

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