“It’s total love, it’s a rush of magic, and it’s such a gift,” says Robin Scobie, of being a grandmother. “It’s a whole other journey than that of being a mother.”
Scobie is one of the organizers of this week’s Together in Concert: In Solidarity with African Grandmothers, a webcast celebration that marks the 15th anniversary of the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign.
The campaign involves 160 groups of grandmothers across Canada devoted to the support of fellow grandmothers in sub-Saharan Africa who are caring for children left orphaned by an HIV/AIDS epidemic that has devastated a generation of parents.
“It’s a sisterhood, and it’s a passion for us, coast to coast,” says Scobie, who is the co-chair of VanGogos, the campaign’s Vancouver chapter. The word “gogo” is a Zulu term of respect for elders. “We’re honouring the resistance and the leadership and the strength of African grandmothers.”
The pre-taped 90-minute virtual concert of music, dance, storytelling and testimonials streams on April 15 at 7:30 p.m. Performers include Jackie Richardson, Lorraine Klaasen, the National Ballet of Canada, Fredericton singer-songwriter David Myles, traditional Québécois musical trio Genticorum and Forte - Toronto Gay Men’s Chorus. Former Barenaked Ladies star Steven Page, the event’s concert director, will sing a song as well.
Speakers include representatives of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, a non-governmental organization that assists HIV/AIDS-related grassroots projects in Africa. Registration to view the event is free and available for 72 hours after it starts. Donations are encouraged.
“We have a lofty goal of $500,000,” Scobie says.
The organization’s first gathering occurred when 200 grandmothers from Canada and half that many of their African counterparts attended the XVI International AIDS Conference in Toronto in August, 2006. “There was a commitment by Canadian grandmothers that we would not rest until the grandmothers in Africa could rest,” says Scobie, a grandma six times over. “We’re still here, 15 years later. The bond continues.”
Singer-actress Jackie Richardson has visited South Africa and Tanzania in her capacity as an original Grandmothers to Grandmothers member.
“As we get older, our network of friends are drifting away. We’re losing people. But with the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, our network has multiplied. One grandmother told me she could drive to any province in Canada, knowing full well she could find a grandmother, a sister, who would put her up.
I attended a conference in Durban, South Africa. There were about 200 South African grandmothers there, but they mostly didn’t know each other. They were standing around in pockets of two or three women, unsure of what to do.
But then a magnificent African grandmother who was part of the organizing committee came into the room and started talking to people. You could see the women nodding and understanding. And then, all of a sudden, they began singing.
I realized the singing was the cleansing part. They had to sing a song just to get through the pain of what they were trying to talk about. The song was healing and uplifting. It went straight to my very core.”
Singer-songwriter Steven Page is long-time supporter of the cause.
“I have a long connection to the campaign. My mother has been involved with them since 2006.
At a benefit for the Stephen Lewis Foundation I had co-hosted in 2005, I heard rumblings that African grandmothers were going to speak in Toronto in 2006. I had my mother call Stephen Lewis’s daughter, Ilana Landsberg-Lewis, who was running the foundation. The whole Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign started from that.
I lost one grandmother when I was 13. I lost the other one, my bubbie, my mother’s mother, while the Barenaked Ladies were recording the album Stunt in 1998. We were super close, and I miss her all the time. If she were alive today, she would be all over this kind of event. She was involved, aware and full of compassion, and a go-getter as well.”
Concert performer Lorraine Klaasen’s mother was the South African jazz singer Thandi Klaasen.
“Growing up in South Africa, I had a cousin who was like a twin sister. Two of her daughters have passed away. So I know first hand how important the roles of grandmothers are. Mothers are dying of AIDS, and the grandmothers are raising the children. The Stephen Lewis Foundation is reaching out to these grandmothers.
For the concert, I’m singing a song I wrote for Nelson Mandela. CBC in Montreal had asked me to write it in 2013 when he died. It’s called Now is the Time. It was a celebration – now was the time to see South Africa free.
We see things in the long distance. But at closer look, it’s not quite what it seems to be. The situation is still difficult over there. The theme of Now is the Time was relevant then, and it’s still relevant today.”
Concert co-chair Sya VanGeest is a storyteller.
“Our local chapter in Guelph, Ont., has raised more than $40,000 since 2006. We all do the thing we’re good at. If I tell a story and get an honorarium, I donate it. Some members sell arts and crafts. One woman fixed up donated bicycles and sold them. It’s wonderful when you’re older and you can work together and maximize your skills and passion to contribute to something so important.
We also donate Air Miles. In 2017, at a regional grandmothers meeting in Brantford, Ont., a woman from Swaziland told us her story. She had wanted to be a carpenter, and she needed to buy tools and go to school. But she was looking after her grandchildren. She didn’t have any money.
So the foundation had funded her. And now, she told us at the meeting, there are a half-dozen or more carpenters, all women, making coffins and benches and tables, and selling enough of them to buy land and grow vegetables. They then sell the vegetables, which buys shoes and uniforms for children to attend school. It’s the kind of project the foundation finds. It’s about being self-sustaining.”
Concert performer Sheree Fitch is a Nova Scotia-based author, literacy advocate and grandmother.
“For the concert, I’ll be reading a poem, Because We Love, We Cry. I wrote it on the morning after the tragedy in Portapique, N.S., almost a year ago, when 22 people were massacred. I was in bed when I heard the news. The words just came.
When the campaign called me, I thought they’d want me to do something happy. I’m known for joy, you know? But they specifically requested this poem.
It makes a lot of sense. With all the hope and solidarity of women joining with women and holding hands around the world and trying to raise awareness of the issue of what grandmothers are going through in Africa, there’s also an incredible sadness around it.
This campaign is an initiative that comes from love and a sense of community. And that’s where this poem comes from, too. Because we love, we cry.”