Your Majesty, the Queen Mother of Swaziland, the Honourable Prime Minister, the Honourable Deputy Prime Minister, and all other esteemed dignitaries here assembled, and above all, the grandmothers of Africa and Canada:
I can’t begin to express how sorry I am that I cannot be here with you today. I’ve looked forward to it for a very long time, but an unexpected minor illness has kept me at home. I threatened to put my doctors in jail if they didn’t give me permission to travel, but they prevailed in the end.
On the other hand, I’m very proud that Ilana is here to convey my remarks to you at the opening of this first-ever grandmother’s gathering in Africa.
Let me start with a small piece of history. One of the reasons I’m pleased Ilana is with you is that, back in 2006, she first raised with me the question of the grandmothers of Africa. She and her Foundation colleagues argued that more and more often, orphan children were being looked after by their African grandmothers, and yet, next to nothing was being done for the grandmothers themselves. From that innocent beginning there emerged, first, the astonishingly moving and successful grandmothers gathering at the outset of the International AIDS Conference in Toronto in 2006, followed by an explosion of solidarity between African and Canadian grandmothers, now growing irresistibly into a mass international social movement.
In the interim, we’ve learned a lot; the entire HIV/AIDS movement has learned a lot.
We’ve learned that African grandmothers are the backbone of the continent. We’ve learned that African grandmothers form the core of community-based care. We’ve learned that African grandmothers will sacrifice their very lives to protect and nurture their orphan grandchildren. We’ve learned that African grandmothers are generous beyond belief. We’ve learned that African grandmothers, in several countries, care for between forty and sixty per cent of all orphan children , amounting to several million in total. We’ve learned that Africa could not survive without its grandmothers.
If there were greater justice in the Nobel prize for peace, it would go not to President Obama, but to his paternal grandmother and all the other grandmothers of Africa who share the setbacks and the joys, the agonies and the raptures, the struggles and the hopes of their orphan grandchildren.
AIDS has cut a terrible swath through Africa. For some inexplicable reason, Africa was not prepared for the monumental numbers of orphans left behind. It is as though the death of parents somehow occurred in a vacuum, as though the children would somehow survive on their own.
But of course they couldn’t. And the community structures and the family structures were so devastated by the pandemic that children faced separation, isolation, child-headed households: it felt like abandonment.
But there then emerged — suddenly, almost miraculously, magnificently — one solid wall of protection, a wall so strong that it withstood all the misfortune heaped on the orphans of Africa. It was the wall of grandmothers. You couldn’t penetrate it. You couldn’t destroy it. It stands today as the protective embrace for the orphan children of the continent.
You know that protective embrace in Swaziland. This country has suffered more from AIDS than any other country in Southern Africa. I visited Swaziland a number of times when I was the United Nations Envoy — in fact, I remember the occasion when I spoke to the members of the public service of Swaziland, at a meeting here in Manzani, and noted, on that occasion, that Swaziland had surpassed Botswana and had the highest AIDS prevalence rate in all of Africa.
You can imagine the challenge for the Government. You can imagine the challenge for NERCHA. There’s no greater challenge on the continent. It’s a tremendous tribute to the country that it continues to fight the virus with such extraordinary determination. All of us want Swaziland to win this fight. You have lost far too many of your men, women and children, with the women and children remaining most grievously at risk.
But you have enormous strengths. And one of those strengths is the organization responsible for bringing this incredible grandmothers gathering together … the organization we all know and admire: Swaziland For Positive Living, or SWAPOL.
I want to tell you that of all the civil society organizations of People Living With AIDS, SWAPOL ranks amongst the top two or three in all of Africa. It’s uncompromising and it’s principled. Sometimes the Government gets mad at it; sometimes NERCHA gets mad at it; sometimes even I lose patience with it. But the phenomenal strength of SWAPOL lies in its refusal to be taken off track, its absolute dedication to its members and to the cause for which it exists: turning the tide of AIDS in Swaziland.
So I want you to allow me for a moment to pay tribute to its leader: Siphiwe Hlophe. And I must start with a confession, a confession in the presence of my daughter, my grandsons, the Canadian grandmothers and my wonderful associates at the Stephen Lewis Foundation. I love Siphiwe. I’m crazy about her. I have a crush on her. If I were here now, I’d grab Siphiwe and swirl her around in the air (well, maybe that’s not quite accurate … it’s probably closer to the truth to say that Siphiwe would swirl me around in the air), but whoever’s doing the swirling, the fact of the matter is that Siphiwe is a giant in the battle against AIDS.
And you see it all around you. This gathering would not be possible without her. Never underestimate Siphiwe. She now rubs shoulders with Presidents and leaders of the United Nations. She’s one of the most sought-after speakers at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna this July. She has become a force of nature. Personally, I’m jealous: I used to be a force of nature and now my position has been usurped by Siphiwe. Still, please believe me when I say that the Stephen Lewis Foundation is immensely proud to support SWAPOL, and to have worked in partnership to support this historic Gathering.
Just think of what’s happening: grandmothers from fourteen nations; representatives from activist women’s groups fighting for gender equality; associations of People Living With AIDS; an intense day of meetings tomorrow, organized by the grandmothers, to hammer out a mandate, a strategy to take us forward; and with it an all-consuming focus on what must be done for the orphans and grandmothers of Africa.
We’ve entered a tough time in the annals of AIDS. Donor governments are cutting back, both the Global Fund and PEPFAR are short on money, second-line drugs are often too expensive for governments to afford … uneasy days lie ahead. This year, 2010, was supposed to be the year of universal access to treatment, prevention and care. We’re nowhere near those goals in any respect.
Given all of that, the best strategy would seem to be to focus determinedly on community-based, grass-roots work. And that brings us back to the grandmothers: they are the community.
I hope this gathering is a remarkable success. And then one day we can do it again. But I want to say to you, in closing, that all of the Canadian grandmothers, represented by the fine women from Canada here today, will be with the African grandmothers every step of the way, as will the Stephen Lewis Foundation. It’s an honour and a privilege to stand with you, and to be at your side as you rescue and feed and clothe and shelter and educate and heal and love an entire generation of children whose lives would otherwise be fractured and lost.
Grandmothers of Africa, we love you, we honour you, and we salute you.