As I wrote last month a friend Val and I were privileged to join 20 Canadian grandmothers to attend a gathering of over 500 Ugandan grandmothers in Entebbe. The event was the first of its kind in Africa, bringing together women who have been raising their AIDS orphaned grandchildren. All were linked to grassroots projects funded by the Stephen Lewis Foundation (SLF) and supported by grandmothers in the UK and Canada. It was good to arrive in Entebbe a few days before the start of the gathering as it gave us time for orientation at our hotel on the shore of Lake Victoria and to start to know the Canadian group of grandmothers. A trip out to Ngamba Island to visit the Orphan Chimpanzee sanctuary proved a very interesting visit not just to see the chimps and participate in their feeding but to see a well-managed project with committed staff. We also met Ida, SLF field officer, who visits the projects regularly to ensure that they are well run and money is well spent. We were to get to know her better and understand how very well informed she was about the lives of the women and the work of the local NGOs and community projects.
A busy day of preparation helped us put into context our role for the gathering and in particular discussing what was and was not appropriate behaviour in the culture of Uganda and the various regions of the country. We also had to decide on a song to sing to the gathering, unaccompanied. After much discussion we settled on ‘Land of The Silver Birch’ which Val and I knew, having been Girl Guides! We also chose ‘If I had a Hammer’ and between the songs Val and I wrote a short piece to introduce ourselves as did the Canadians.
The gathering had been planned by a Ugandan group representing 6 of the grassroots organisations, bringing them together for the first time. It was hoped to bring about political change and to give grandmothers a louder voice to demand their Human Rights. Monday was the opening of the gathering and what a welcome from the Ugandan grandmothers; much waving, hugging and shaking of hands. We heard personal stories from some grandmothers, many of whom are HIV positive, and presentations from Theo Sowa, Head of the African Women’s Development Fund, Kenneth, Chair of the organising committee and Kaka Jolie a grandmother and committee member.
After coffee it was our turn to do our bit!! The only record is on You Tube but we can report that the Ugandans are much better at singing (and dancing) than we were! Coffee and lunch was an opportunity to mix with the grandmothers and talk to them about their lives and families. It was so good to see the grandmothers piling up their plates with food and enjoying a meal together. They set up their craft stalls in the garden and business was brisk with the Canadians.
The afternoon had the first of the workshops around the theme of ‘Economic Empowerment’. We took the role of rapporteurs taking notes of all the contributions from the grandmothers. It was not an easy task trying to get down verbatim what they said. Some groups spoke English but in others we relied on an interpreter. We heard encouraging stories of savings plans in remote villages, of security problems and of enterprising business schemes. We also heard of struggles to provide good food for children on antiretroviral drugs and have enough money for school fees.
The only disappointment of the day was that the First Lady did not come to open the gathering – she was too busy; a great pity as she could have shown such solidarity with these wonderful women. The day ended with a wonderful cultural evening in the gardens of the hotel. We had supper and were entertained by a very energetic and talented performing troupe with much drumming and dancing by all grandmothers, Ugandan, English and Canadian; a magical evening.
Day two involved more workshops around the themes of ‘HIV and AIDS’ and ‘Social Protection’. Both these themes drew upon a broad range of issues impacting on the lives of grandmothers. The morning theme was introduced by Patience Sentamu from The AIDS Support Organisation. A powerful delivery from a passionate woman. All the notes from all the workshops fed into the development of the Uganda Statement which was to be delivered on the final day. We heard about the stigma that still exists when a woman “discloses” her HIV status or that of her children and the vulnerability of many women who have no rights to their family land or home.
The gathering also received the deputy minister for Gender, Labour and the Elderly. Not a very convincing performance by him and he was challenged by Robina, director of an AIDS Organisation, to do something practical and not just present ideas which they had heard before. A somewhat uncomfortable position for him to find himself in but he brazenly asked for their votes in the forthcoming election.
The last day started with a 3km. march from the centre of Entebbe, past the president’s residence, demanding rights for the elderly. Many of these women are used to walking long distances to buy food, get medical treatment, firewood and water so they kept up a good pace. I even appeared on BBC World News and we hit the Ugandan headlines.
The closing ceremony included the delivery of the “Uganda Statement” by a local grandmother; clear, succinct and powerful. Having lived through the traumas of the early AIDS pandemic they are now finding a voice to demand their Human Rights. The themes of health care, land rights, elder abuse, economic opportunities and social welfare were picked up by Stephen Lewis himself. They were endorsed also by Florence Butegwa who stood in for Graça Mandela. The president did not attend; he should have done and his stand in was useless.
Although the gathering was about the Ugandan grandmothers it was good to have some of the orphans, now grown up, playing music and dancing for us at each break and acting as stewards for the conference. They are great ambassadors for the communities and the grandmothers.
Afterwards the grandmothers dispersed home. For some there were long journeys to the furthest corners of Uganda. The next day I visited a rural project, Reach Out Touch One Ministry, to see a new health centre where grandmothers were eagerly waiting for physiotherapy and a village community centre, both funded by SLF. We saw water schemes bringing fresh water to local villages and a community garden producing varied crops from the fertile soil. We danced with the grandmothers at a village meeting and saw them reporting back to the other villagers with great gusto what they had learnt at the Gathering.
In contrast I then went to a Roman Catholic Kampala hospital project and listened to the tragic and moving stories of amazing grandmothers. The project’s recent home based care now gives families food aid and help with school fees, trains grandchildren in vocational skills like hairdressing and sets grandmothers up in savings and business schemes like chicken rearing. The highlights were visits to the homes of two grandmothers, one in a slum area.
Meanwhile Val visited Reach Out and met a ‘Savings group’ and saw a micro-brewery as well as being shown how the grandmothers make paper beads for jewellery. In 2010 SLF started a house building programme to replace some of the mud huts which were in poor condition with brick-built homes complete with latrines and a water supply. We were pleased to have been given such an insight into the lives and work of the local NGOs.
We then had a day of debriefing, trying to get our heads round all that we had experienced. helped by the very knowledgeable staff of the SLF. Saturday a trip to a craft market with much shopping accomplished was followed by a visit to a Wild Life park. The evening was packing and farewells.
Although the gathering was about the Ugandan grandmothers it was good to have some of the orphans, now grown up, playing music and dancing for us at each tea time, coffee break and lunch. Great ambassadors for the communities and the grandmothers.