Joanna Henry, Grandmothers Campaign Coordinator with the Foundation, travelled with Nkulie and Regina for the first portion of the AfriGrand Caravan. She sent us a wonderful message with her reflections on the Caravan thus far, which we’re pleased to share with you here.
I’ve been on the road with the Caravan now for four days, three provinces, six events and four beds and I already feel I have enough stories to fill an entire novel or two.
To be quite honest – as I finally find a moment to sit and reflect I just don’t know where to begin.
I suppose I could start with an introduction of the individuals who currently make up the crew of the AfriGrand Caravan.
There is Jack – one of the retired long-haul truck drivers who has volunteered to drive a van full of women from one end of this country to the other. It is hard to not think Jack a little bit mad to agree to such task, but from what I can observe thus far – he is, in fact, the embodiment of patience and kindness. It is extremely fortunate that he has little desire to get a word in edge-wise as this would be futile with such a strong group of vocal women! The Canadian Auto Workers Union not only found this gem of a driver for us, but also offered to cover all of his meals and lodging along the way. We owe them a hefty debt of gratitude indeed.
There is Louise – our nurse, or our logistical nurse as she has come to be called since she does far more logistics than nursing at this point. I am overwhelming grateful for both her willingness to help out with these event details, as well as the fact that we have not needed to call upon her nursing skills thus far! Louise is a Canadian grandmother from Ujamaa Grandmas in Calgary Alberta and will be on the Caravan until Montreal. If you were to mix warmth, feistiness and competence in a blender you would get Louise.
There is Nkulie (African Granddaughter), Regina (African Grandmother) and me (Stephen Lewis Foundation Grandmothers Campaign Coordinator) of course.
There are also all the individuals in the communities hosting the events who have welcomed the Caravan with such overwhelming kindness and have worked so tirelessly and creatively to put together such successful events. Their enthusiasm has been infectious as well as energizing and has touched each of us to our core. Our stay often seems like a whirlwind of activity – but even in such a short time we are keenly aware of a profound sense of relationship and connection with so many as we leave the communities. Nkulie, in particular has bonded very deeply with each of her hosts where we have been billeted.
There are countless others as well. Many hours are spent on the road telling and re-telling the tales of the people we met, laughing, shaking our heads in amazement and revelling in the love and respect that was so freely given.
It is safe to say Nkulie has fallen in love head-over-heels with the Canadian grandmothers and Canadian young women.
I am anxious to share some of the highlights of the incredible events that have taken place over the past few days. I was not present at the event in St. John’s Newfoundland, but heard it was a wonderful warm gathering. Over the course of the past four days the Caravan has had events in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Summerside, PEI and Sackville, New Brunswick – with two speaking engagements per day, one at a school and one in the evening or afternoon open to the community. I would like to share a very quick highlight from each event – forgive me as I will just share what comes to mind for me:
- The grand kick-off in Halifax that included a presentation to 300 high school students in a gym during a power failure;
- The embrace of what felt like the entire Island of PEI which included an evening event complete with violin and traditional dancing;
- The incredibly intimate and moving gatherings in Sackville.
These are just some of the events that beg to be shared. Tonight as I write this email I am overridden by my desire to take a bit of time to reflect on the most extraordinary member of our Caravan: Nkulie.
So let me start there.
Nkulie is 17.
Nkulie lost her mother 9 months ago.
Nkulie is being asked to publicly speak at each event twice a day to crowds of people ranging from high school students to grandmothers.
The fact that Nkulie can do this is truly touching and extraordinary.
I try to imagine what it takes to mourn the loss of your mother – still so recent – and get up twice a day, in the company of complete strangers, and talk about your inner life. I know that I have found it challenging to maintain the level of raw feeling and energy throughout gruelling schedules and travel and can only marvel at the strength of this young woman.
Grandmother Regina speaks to her vast experience, knowledge and expertise as the Executive Director of Tateni, and does an incredible job framing the interconnectedness and sophistication of a holistic HIV/AIDS community organization. She speaks to the necessity of programs that service an entire family affected by HIV and AIDS and not just the person in the family who is ill (this is how Nkulie came under the care of Tateni). She also shares how important it is to her work that she visits people in their own home so she can know the true context of their lives and their needs.
Nkulie on the other hand, speaks as a client of Tateni. She speaks as an individual affected by HIV/AIDS with a trauma so recent and so profound it potently reminds us of the pain and triumph of the human spirit of so many youngsters in communities in Africa – struggling to deal with the aftermath of so much loss and uncertainty.
I have had the extraordinary privilege over these past four days to witness some of Nkulie’s personal journey while on this Caravan. Each day she has approached differently this space she has been given to speak.
On one occasion she chose to educate students on HIV and AIDS, telling them “it doesn’t choose based on your colour, your money, your country – anyone can be chosen.” She closed her speech by encouraging students that “this is not the end of hope. How do you think the cure will eventually come? How do you think hope will come? By helping each other, sharing ideas with each other, communicating with each other globally”. She held out her hands to the room full of students as she spoke these words and it was impossible not to feel the impulse to reach back in response.
On another occasion she struggled with the deeply unfair distribution of wealth that she was witnessing in Canada moving between anger and desperation, and yet another event found her highlighting the efforts of the community she is living in “working together even though we have very little.”
Today, in a breathless moment of courage – Nkulie spoke about her mother. She started the conversation: “today I am standing before you, as brave as I am, to speak to all of you. I want to tell you that I lost my mother not even a year ago to HIV and you cannot imagine what this means.”
Her words resonated with tangible force around the room the way only deep honesty can.
She spoke about losses that were hard to explain – such as the pain of seeing something in a shop that she wished she could buy and going home and telling her mother about it. “Of course she is your mother so she will say ‘I will get that for you’ and even though you know she can’t, you know she loves you, and you know you have shared this with your mother.”
She spoke of the vulnerabilities and desperation that children endure when they lose a mother. How boys often end up in gangs so they can earn money for the toddlers at home and girls must find “sugar daddies” so they can have food for school.
“Those of you who have children, tell me – when they cry, what do they say? They say ‘mom’ ‘mom’ ‘mom’ so I tell you, it is not easy to lose a mother.”
There is much to add, like how Nkulie counts herself lucky be under the care of an organization like Tateni that feeds her, provides counselling, and helps her to focus on her goal of becoming a lawyer. Nkulie has the devoted love of her brother and grandmother (who is now raising her) and she credits them for “always standing behind her in everything I want to do.” All of this, and more, is vital to understanding the full context of Nkulie’s life.
But at this moment, I simply want to contemplate what just happened today in that small room in Sackville New Brunswick, on a Sunday afternoon, when a 17 year old woman stood up, spoke up and had the courage and generosity of spirit to share this precious piece of herself with a room full of people who gathered with an intent to listen.
I need to go to bed now, quite frankly I am exhausted. But I am not depleted.
Each day I also stand in front of the crowds of people and share my own motivation, drive and inspiration for my part in this work. As someone working at the Foundation I have the extraordinary privilege of hearing many of the incredible stories of the women, children and men dedicated to rebuilding lives and communities at the front line of the AIDS pandemic but rarely is there opportunity for me to step out of the way and just watch the stories being shared grassroots to grassroots if you will.
But this is not just about stories of community transformation, it is about lives being transformed here and now. Nkulie’s yes, but also mine.
I am also sure that everyone who listened to Nuklie yesterday walked out of that room transformed in some way.
Tomorrow the Caravan continues its journey, as do we all. I am, however, so grateful I have a few more days of sharing the road with Nkulie.