Now 84, Norma Geggie is the founder of
the Canadian Wakefield Grannies, an
organisation supporting grandmothers
raising their Aids-orphaned grandchildren
Psychiatric nurse Rose Letwaba’s chance
conversation with Norma Geggie in a
Canadian supermarket led to the
remarkable relationship between the
grandmothers of Wakefield and Alexandra.
Some of the Alexandra kids the
transatlantic partnership helps support.
Norma Geggie at home in Wakefield.
Since 2004 the Wakefield Grannies have
raised funds as only grannies can, with
quilt sales, music concerts, book sales
“One day, an army of grey-haired women may quietly take over the earth,” said US feminist and writer Gloria Steinem. Today, a remarkable transatlantic partnership of grey-haired women may not be taking over the earth, but are certainly helping to change it.
For some four years a group of grandmothers from the small Canadian town of Wakefield have been helping other grandmothers from the South African township of Alexandra, north of Johannesburg, raise their Aids-orphaned grandchildren.
It began in 2004 when Rose Letwaba, an Alexandra-based psychiatric nurse visiting a friend in Canada, struck up a conversation with a stranger in a Wakefield supermarket.
Letwaba told the stranger, Norma Geggie, then 80 years old, the story of a group of South African gogos (grandmothers) who had been forced by the Aids-related deaths of their own children to return to parenting. Old women, they were suddenly heading households and raising their grandchildren. Herself a grandmother, Geggie was immediately moved to find a way to help.
Geggie spoke to her friends. Soon Letwaba was standing in a church filled with elderly Wakefield women, telling them about her work with the grandmothers, mothers and children of Alexandra.
Her talk inspired the Canadians to set up the Wakefield Grannies, an organisation working to provide financial and moral support to the gogos of Alexandra. Over the past four years they have raised funds as only grannies can: a quilt sale, a music concert, book readings. They also launched a range of salsa products, branded as Gogolaka sauces.
They’ve used Canadian May Day celebrations to host garage sales, selling crafts and food, and to organise a variety of workshops. The money collected is wired to South Africa; a regular financial report is sent back, detailing how the money was used.
The two groups of grandmothers are now the subject of a documentary called The Great Granny Revolution. Made by Brenda Rooney, a founding member of the Wakefield Grannies, and her husband Robert, it follows the story of the remarkable partnership – and friendship – that has grown between the grey-haired women of Wakefield and Alexandra.
At one of the first Canadian screenings of the film, Ledwaba told the audience, “If everyone was like the people of Wakefield, the world would be a better place to live in.”
The Alexandra grannies
The Alex Aids Orphans Project was started in 2001 when staff at the township’s East Bank Children’s Clinic became aware that many young HIV-positive patients were either missing appointments or dropping out of treatment altogether. As head nurse, Letwaba investigated the matter, discovering that across the township, grandmothers living in abject poverty were raising their Aids-orphaned grandchildren, some of them HIV-positive.
What started out with three grandmothers sharing their grief at the loss of their children and supporting each other to care for their orphaned grandchildren has now grown to a group of 40 elderly women. The grannies, whose grandchildren were part of the Alex Aids Orphan Project, then started a group, the Gogo Granny Outreach Project. The 40 gogos are collectively taking care of nearly 160 children orphaned by Aids.
Lucia Mazibuko is one such strong woman. In the documentary she’s full of joy and laughter, despite having to raise two grandsons, one of them HIV-positive. Mazibuko has lost both of her daughters and a son-in-law to Aids.
Another is Magdeline Ramakobo, now caring for her daughter, who has full-blown Aids. When her daughter succumbs to the disease Ramakabo will be left, in their one-room shack, to raise her daughter’s two children.
Each of the Wakefield grannies has paired up with 10 members of the Gogo Granny Outreach Project, with strong friendships developing over the years. The partners write letters and exchange pictures, keeping each other updated about their lives. The Alexandra grannies have started a sewing business and grow vegetable gardens as part of their project, as a means of generating funds.
On 6 March, the City of Johannesburg, in partnership with the High Commission of Canada and the International Women’s Rights Project, screened The Great Granny Revolution ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March. The city flew the Wakefield grannies to South Africa to join their friends in a two-day project, training other elderly women to facilitate the development of the support model of the granny-headed home.
“I feel so proud,” filmmaker Brenda Rooney said at the screening. “My eyes are full of tears and my mouth is full of smiles. If we all step forward I’m sure we can do enough to make things better.”