Submitted by Heather MacKenzie
Special to the Record
When the HIV and AIDS pandemic swept across the continent of Africa, it took the lives of nearly an entire generation – 35 million perished, many of them parents – which left their children alone and vulnerable. With little or no support, it was the grandmothers of Africa who stepped in to care for the next generation.
It was in this context that a network of grandmothers’ groups across Canada and beyond came together, under the leadership of the Stephen Lewis Foundation (SLF).
In the Comox Valley, the Glacier Grannies was formed, and we are proud and happy to say that by our 15th anniversary we have raised more than $600,000 in financial support for grandmothers in Africa.
These funds have gone to grassroots, community-based care organizations in 15 sub-Saharan countries that help grandmothers overcome grief, health, financial and human rights challenges. The outcome has been to strengthen community capacity, and improve women and children’s physical, emotional and financial health.
15 years of fellowship and fundraising
Back in 2007 the HIV and AIDS pandemic was raging in Africa and treatment was not widely available. After caring for their own children as they died in the HIV and AIDS pandemic, grandmothers in Africa took on the role of raising their orphaned grandchildren, caring for their physical and emotional needs, and putting them through school.
In response, women in the Comox Valley rallied together under the umbrella of the SLFs Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign. At an early local meeting, one of the participants looked out of the host’s living room window at the view and suggested the name “Glacier Grannies’ – and it stuck.
A strength of the Comox Valley grandmothers and grand “others” group has been our crafting and organizing skills. These skills were first put to work to create “AIDS Angels,” decorative angels that can be used as a Christmas ornament or to enhance any space. Women have met together every Wednesday afternoon since 2008 to create angels, forming friendships and supporting each other through many fundraising events, and life’s ups and downs.
Similar bonds have formed through other activities, such as the remarkable 2010-2011 textile art exhibit “Turning the tide…one ripple at a time,” which raised over $150,000. These bonds were not just amongst Comox Valley participants, but with The North Island Quilters for Community Awareness, the Merville Grand Mothers group, the Victoria Grandmothers and more than a dozen groups across Western Canada that exhibited the textile art.
Many people from the Comox Valley have enjoyed the Glacier Grannies’ regular African Dinners, participated in our Stride walks, or bought a Christmas swag for their front door. In addition to raising funds for African women’s community groups, the Glacier Grannies have benefited from direct interactions with women on the front lines. Several groups of African women and SLF leaders have visited the Comox Valley, and their talks to the public and to schools have fostered understanding and empathy for communities less privileged than our own.
Commitment to the African communities
Today, many grandmothers in Africa that have benefited from programs supported by the Stephen Lewis Foundation are pivotal members of their communities. They participate in income-generating programs and lead the fight against HIV and AIDS: teaching prevention, supporting those living with the condition, and battling the stigma that still surrounds the disease.
Grandmothers have also become advocates for change, fighting for their human rights and those of their families. Furthermore, the acclaimed local community-led care approach of the SLF is helping in other ways. It has led to ongoing resilience and success, helping beyond the HIV and AIDS crisis to facilitate COVID care and vaccination programs, for example.
While today’s news headlines are focusing on climate change, the war in Ukraine and COVID, it’s important to continue to strengthen women’s communities and conditions in Africa. The Glacier Grannies carry on working in solidarity with grandmothers in Africa: “We will not rest until they can rest.”
4 ways you can help
1. Donate to the Glacier Grannies (visit glaciergrannies.org)
2. Join the Glacier Grannies (for both grandmothers and grand “others”)
3. Visit our booth at Fiesta, Nov. 19 and 20 at the Florence Filberg Centre, and purchase one of our crafts.
4. Watch for our Christmas swags, and buy one for your home or place of business.
“We extend our sincere appreciation to all our marvellous donors and sponsors over the years, and hope you will help us celebrate 15 years of success with ongoing support,” said Barb Taylor, co-chair of the Glacier Grannies. “Your time and resources are needed to continue to champion the health and human rights of African women and communities. Thank you for being an ally.”