Africa holds a special place in the heart of Ladner resident and grandmother, Jesse Pringle. She lived there as a young mother in the 1960s, and again in the ‘80s. So, when she heard that in August 2006, the Stephen Lewis Foundation was bringing 100 African grandmothers to Toronto to meet with 200 Canadian grandmothers, I'm going, she decided.
Stephen Lewis, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, had been travelling in Africa for over two years. He was devastated when he saw that across the continent, millions of people -- individuals, families and communities -- were struggling with the ravages of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. More than 60% of all people in sub-Saharan were living with HIV. 13.2 million AIDS-infected women and girls were sick and dying. Over 13 million children had been orphaned.
Stephen launched the Stephen Lewis Foundation, an organization to provide relief to the suffering people of Africa. Assisting those most in need by funding grassroots projects and putting money directly in the hands of communities and front-line organizations, the Stephen Lewis Foundation raised more than 10 million dollars in the first three years. But it was not enough.
A continent of orphans had emerged, millions of children whose parents had died of AIDS. Displaying amazing reserves of courage, resilience and love, setting aside the grief of their own losses, Africa’s grandmothers stepped into the breach. With little or no support or financial resources, they offered their hearts and homes to the children, sometimes supporting as many as ten to fifteen in one household.
To raise awareness and mobilize support for the struggling grandmothers of Africa, in March 2006 Stephen Lewis issued an appeal to Canadian grandmothers to help their African sisters and launched the Gogo (Grandmothers to Grandmothers) Campaign. Gogo, in Zulu, means grandmother.
Jesse sat in the Toronto auditorium waiting for the 100 African grandmothers to appear. They’d be subdued, she thought, tired, jet-lagged maybe, overwhelmed at being in a strange country. But suddenly, with a joyful hooting, hollering and singing, accompanied by thunderous applause from the Canadian delegation, the African grandmothers appeared – happy, smiling, relaxed. For Jesse it was a heart-stopping moment.
“It was absolutely amazing,” Jesse recalls, “the positive spirit, enthusiasm and optimism of those grandmothers was awe-inspiring. I knew right then I wanted to do something to contribute to their cause; I wanted to give something back to the Africa I had visited and loved.”
On her return home, Jesse contacted Barbara Clay, current Chair of the Greater Van Gogos, whom she’d met at the gathering. Barbara encouraged Jesse to start a new Gogo group south of the Fraser River.
Pleased to give it a try, Jesse contacted a Delta Optimist reporter. He interviewed her and wrote an article about the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign and invited local grandmothers to reach out to their African counterparts and join the South Fraser Gogos. There was a good response and the group has never looked back.
Like the other Gogo groups across Canada (now numbering an amazing 230, with more than 5,000 members), the South Fraser groups’ mandate is to support the Stephen Lewis Foundation in its efforts to provided African grandmothers with their immediate needs of food, housing, medical care, transportation, clothing and school supplies for the orphans. To facilitate Gogos’ goals, all groups participate in a three-arm programme of Fundraising, Advocacy and Awareness.
Fundraising Gogos organize Scrabble and Bridge tournaments, hold book exchanges, fashion shows, pub nights; they make handsome handmade gift items, jewellery, sew aprons and pot holders; some create beautiful wall-art, quilts and the ever-popular, colourful tote bags.
The work of the Advocacy group takes the concern for grandmothers and AIDS orphans into the public or civil sphere, meeting with elected officials, and working with the media to see that helpful policies, those that will most benefit the African grandmothers and the AIDS orphans in their care, are created, reformed and implemented.
As co-ordinator and member of the Awareness team for the South Fraser group, Jesse finds herself one busy lady. As the “public face” of the group, she is also publicity person, advising local media of upcoming events. Besides attending national conferences, Jesse is much in demand for speaking engagements to local community groups and organizations. Her goal is to raise public awareness about the seriousness of the AIDS pandemic in Africa, about the difficulties faced by the grandmothers and orphaned children, and about the work of the Stephen Lewis Foundation and the Grandmother’s Campaign.
Jesse takes her role as co-ordinator seriously, generating passion and enthusiasm for their cause, also networking with team members to train others interested in starting groups of their own. “I try to encourage members to experience a variety of roles within the group,” Jesse says.
Summer Sunday mornings, 8:00 a.m. on Ladner Village Market days, Jesse and her team are already erecting the Gogos booth canopy, setting up tables and planning the day’s strategies. Tote bags arrive from the “Bag Ladies” (creative ladies who make the attractive Gogo bags), and they are added to the display. Market days are busy. Sales are brisk. Jesse, having organized the schedule, visits each group of volunteers throughout the day.
In the three years since her group was formed, Jesse and her 40-member South Fraser grannies have donated more than $82,000 to the Stephen Lewis Foundation, $62,000 of which came from the sale of tote bags.
Together, the Stephen Lewis Foundation and the Grandmother’s Campaign have donated many millions of dollars ($6.1 million from the Grandmother’s Campaign alone) to fund special projects in 15 African countries, with only 10% of funds donated used for administrative costs.
“There is so much that is rewarding in being part of the Gogo organization,” Jesse enthuses, “but I think primarily, it is thinking that we are doing something concrete to make the lives of African women a bit easier. Also, being involved with the Canadian grandmothers willing to give of their time, considerable effort, experience and skills is awe-inspiring, as has been being part of a growing and expanding group effort. Thanks to all this, I feel that I have grown and expanded too!”
Due to the efforts of women like Jesse Pringle and her South Fraser team, Grandmothers’ groups in British Columbia have won the prestigious Rosemary Brown Award for Women for 2009, an award recognizing outstanding achievement in promoting equality and human rights.
SEPTEMBER 2009 - VANCOUVER & LOWER MAINLAND
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