Durban - As communities around the world today pay tribute to those who valiantly fought, and in many cases lost against HIV/Aids, South Africans are celebrating a group of warriors who are making the battle easier to endure.
These warriors, some of them with sticks, some slightly stooped, and most with grey hair, are the grandmothers who have organised themselves into various units and have taken on the role of mother, father, breadwinner and caregiver to their families and neighbours.
Early on Friday morning, as the mercury hit the mid-20s, the Bambanani Hall in KwaNyuswa, an impoverished village in the picturesque Valley of a Thousand Hills outside Durban, came to life for the 2019 Gogo of the Year event.
The red carpet was rolled out, gold drapes framed the walls and hundreds of elderly women dressed to the nines in traditional gear and vibrant colours streamed in from various rural areas.
The unrelenting heat did not deter the women who had gathered – some shuffling, others holding on to each other for support – from paying tribute to each other and those who were so instrumental in the fight against HIV/Aids.
One of the first to arrive was Cwengi Myeni, a retired nurse and co-ordinator of the Gogo Support Group programme. Myeni, from the Hillcrest Aids Centre Trust (Hact), said it had about 2 000 gogos in its 60 support groups which were spread around 12 rural communities. “It is my passion; I love to work with people. The granny project is so inspiring just to see the life of a person changing,” Myeni said.
The Hillcrest Aids Centre Trust provides psychosocial support, skills development programmes and economic empowerment opportunities to the women in the network. Myeni said she had worked in the Valley of a Thousand Hills since 1976 and realised that something needed to be done to assist the gogos, when an increasing number of people became ill and the hospitals were too full to assist them.
She said the gogos turned to Hact for assistance and they were trained to be home-based carers. “We realised that the number of grannies who had to take care of their grandchildren were increasing. In some cases, their parents were too sick to take care of them or they had died. In other cases, they had left the grandchildren with their grannies to search for work in other places,” she said.
Myeni said many organisations flocked to the area to assist the communities and initially the elderly became dependent on them for food and other resources. Then Hact undertook HIV education among them in an attempt to make them independent, which resulted in the formation of the Gogo Support Groups in 2006. “Now people from other provinces are also starting support groups,” said Myeni.
She said they taught the elderly how to sew, create vegetable gardens, poultry farming, beadwork and other skills which would make them independent. At the end of the six-month sewing course, the gogos graduate and receive a certificate, many of them for the first time in their lives.
Myeni, 76, said: “Gogos also need parenting skills because of the generational gap between them and their grandchildren who know about social media. Everything has changed from when they were young or even bringing up their own children.”
She said the gogos, some of whom were even great-grandmothers, were faced with teenage pregnancies, alcoholism, drug addiction… and not many of them owned or understood smartphones, so had to be educated on a range of things. Despite this, they were resilient and had achieved much.
The head of the SA Grandmothers’ Movement, Zodwa Ndlovu, said many were themselves HIV-positive. “I’m one of them. I didn’t get it in the usual way that people think. I became infected while caring for my two sick children at that time when there was no treatment and our children were dying like flies. I had a boy and a girl and they also died,” she said.
Ndlovu said in the 1990s and early 2000s, many people “just died” because antiretroviral drugs were not available at government facilities and were too expensive to get from private hospitals. “You were just looking at your child dying.”
Ndlovu, 68, from uMlazi, who also runs an NGO called Siyaphambili, said one day she decided to have herself tested. The result came back positive. Then she went to another clinic and got the same result.
“Someone with HIV will always think that maybe the machine is broken. I was so depressed.”
She urged her husband to get tested and all five tests came back negative. She said at the time she was using the money she had received when she resigned from nursing to feed the orphans of people who had died as a result of Aids and the grandmothers who took care of them.
Unlike the other gogos who gathered for the celebration in an array of beautifully beaded traditional outfits, she was dressed in black, the only colour in her outfit coming from a single string of pearls, and burgundy shoes. That’s because she was responsible for lighting the candle for those who had passed on as a result of HIV/Aids.
“The only thing that made me come out about my status is because I want other people to be upfront. Don’t be shy,” Ndlovu said.
She explained that grandmothers were shy to talk about their problems and needed people to advocate for them, which was the purpose of the SA Grandmothers’ Movement. “Even in their own homes they are not secure with their own children and grandchildren,” she said.
Ndlovu said many gogos around the country were being robbed by family members when they collected their pension. Many lived in constant fear because they had been raped by their children and grandchildren or attacked by community members who accused them of witchcraft.
In many instances a single pension had to support several generations in one home and the societal burden they carried was huge.
So far, the movement has members in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.
She said her organisation had received support from the Canada-based Stephen Lewis Foundation, which assists community-based organisations involved in HIV/Aids projects across Africa. Candace Davidson, chief executive of the Hillcrest Aids Centre Trust, said Friday’s Gogo of the Year event was to celebrate the role of grandmothers in their communities.
She said over the past 10 or 15 years they’d seen a shift in the way the gogos operated. “Initially, they looked to what they could get from the centre. But now, they are driving the projects and support groups.
“One group registered themselves as a co-op, they built a link with a local school and they are now sewing school uniforms. It’s extra income for them and they are supporting their school,” said Davidson.
She said the gogos were the “backbone” within the communities because the “middle generation” had been lost as a result of Aids or because they had moved for economic reasons. The theme of this year’s World Aids Day is “Communities make a difference”. These gogos have shown that they are the embodiment of that.