AfriGrand Caravan: Reflections from the road — Their song continues

Joanna Henry, Grandmothers Campaign Coordinator with the Stephen Lewis Foundation, brings us her latest reflection on her time on the AfriGrand Caravan. (You can read her previous dispatches here.)

The room is quiet, chairs and armchairs are filled and everyone is gathered in a semi-circle around a large leather sofa holding the two guests of honour, a grandmother and a grand daughter from Swaziland. The gas fire is “crackling”, lamps are low, and just outside the large picture window you can see the moonlight glinting off random crags and peaks, hinting at the snow capped mountains of Banff that tower just outside, giving all in this space a sense that we are as snuggled into the landscape as we are into the warmth of the room.

The silence is laced with expectation. The introductions have been made and the listeners are waiting for Tsabile Simelane, otherwise known as Gogo Nde, the newest African Grandmother on the Caravan, to begin speaking.

Here is what they know about her at this moment:

Tsabile and Thandeka

Tsabile and Thandeka. (Photo by Alexis MacDonald.)

She is 56 years old. She is both a beneficiary and volunteer with SWAPOL (Swaziland Positive Living) – the dynamic grassroots organization that organized the first ever African Grandmothers Gathering in Manzini last May through support from the Stephen Lewis Foundation. Gogo Nde (pronounced eN-Day) is taking care of 30 orphans in her community, seven of which live with her. She started the first support group in her community through SWAPOL for those infected and affected by HIV and AIDS including grandmothers and orphans. She is an avid speaker and advocate for access to treatment and conducts home visits to terminally ill clients while working closely with SWAPOL’s mobile clinic outreach team.

Here is what they do not yet know:

Gogo Nde’s heart is a bottomless well of love. There are 30 children depending on her at the moment but so many more have passed through her doors over the years. She has lost some to illness and others have grown to teenagers and she has watched with all the angst and heartache of a parent who weathers the pain of rebellion and sometimes reckless independence and who can only hope that she has loved these children well enough to carry them safely into adulthood.  And yet the door to her house and her heart remains perpetually open to any child that needs a home, usually the children that no one else will take. Like any grandmother, she has photos of her grandchildren always on hand and does not need much encouragement to pull them out and start bragging the way only a grandmother can! She freely shares “it is painful that God did not bless me with any children of my own but He knew that I would have so many children over the course of my life that would need my love because their parents were taken away. So that is my purpose”

The children in her house at the moment range in ages from 18 to 4. The youngest two have come into her life rather recently – Sizwe (6) and Ncamiso (4). They are brothers and both have special needs. Sizwe has Tuberculosis and is undergoing treatment. During this time he cannot attend school and has very specific dietary needs. Ncamiso was born with severe birth defects including mutilated genitalia that made it impossible for him to control his bladder. When their father and mother passed away recently from AIDS and TB, their biological grandmother, who is very elderly and poor, was left with 6 orphaned grandchildren. Given that she is at times unable to provide even one meal a day for the children she was completely overwhelmed and unable to care for Sizwe and Ncamiso. It was no surprise then, that when Gogo Nde was made aware of this situation and discovered little Ncamiso on the brink of death that she did not hesitate to take him into her home – a decision that would lead her all the way to South Africa where life-saving surgery was performed (the first of several he will need). Ncamiso requires intensive daily care including multiple bathes, cleaning of his surgery site, not to mention special diet and diapers that are extremely costly.

To add to this, Gogo Nde is disabled herself. Her legs and knees were shattered in a car accident years ago and many of the bones were not properly set. She walks with two canes and yet somehow managed to get herself and Ncamiso the 450 km from Manzini Swaziland to Pretoria South Africa by bus when he needed emergency medical intervention.

This is just the kind of woman she is.

When she talks about Ncamiso however, which she does often, it is not the story of what she has given him, it is always about what he has given her. She found him as a child broken, covered in sores, smelling so strongly of urine that no one wanted to go near him, but she describes him as “the child of my heart.” Her brown eyes melt when she speaks of him. “This boy is so brilliant and has so much love inside of him. He is four years old and just the other day he told me he wanted to grow up and be a doctor so he can help other children that are sick and different – just imagine!”

All these stories and more would come out during this intimate evening in Banff, but during that moment of silence following her introduction Gogo Nde did not begin speaking right away.

She sat a little longer and allowed the silence to deepen.

Then she looked at Thandeka, the 19 year old African Grand daughter who was seated beside her on the sofa, and suddenly they both burst into song together:

“In a twinkling of an eye, I will fly away. In a twinkling of an eye, I will fly away.”

Over and over they sang this line, sometimes as call and answer, sometimes in unison, overlapping, harmonizing, grandmother and grand daughter together: “In a twinkling of an eye, I will fly away.”

I felt myself moved by both the vulnerability of these words and the strength of their voices.  It seemed they were singing more to each other than the audience in the room, gathering from one another the reserves they would need for the evening ahead –  for all they would give and share to those who had come to hear from them.

This was not the first time that Gogo Nde sang at a Caravan event. While I was not at the inaugural event for the Swaziland Grandmother and Grand daughter that took place in Edmonton, the story of Gogo’s singing and Thandeka’s first public speaking experience was retold to me by those present:

Thandeka Motsa’s story is not one that is easy for her to share. She is only 19 but has been carrying an adult-sized burden for many years.  At 12 Thandeka nursed her chronically ill mother until she succumbed to AIDS. Three days later she lost her father in a tragic accident. She and her two brothers and one sister moved in with their great-grandmother since they had no other place to go.  Here Thandeka became the mother to her 3 siblings as well as nurse to her great grandmother and cared for her until she too passed away at 99 years old.

Thandeka had to drop out of school to manage the load. She works as a hairdresser to earn an income and is proud that she is managing to put her three siblings through school. At this moment her principal preoccupation is the overwhelming fear that she and her siblings may soon be homeless. Now that her great-grandmother is gone, the land and home is forfeited to other relatives who are acting to see the children evicted from the property.

It was at this point in her story, while she stood in front of a packed room in Edmonton that Thandeka’s voice cracked, fell silent, and she began to cry.

The silence was heavy but lasted only a moment before it was broken by the booming voice of Gogo Nde who had started to sing. She just sat in her seat, head thrown back, and sang while Thandeka stood quietly and allowed the song to wrap around her.

Just as suddenly as she began, Gogo Nde ended her song and declared “now she can continue.”

And Thandeka indeed could – and did – finish her speech.

This morning as I write we are passing through the heart of the Rockies, mountains rising on every side. A fresh snowfall has blanketed every pine needle and from time to time the sun breaks through and throws red morning light onto the sides of white mountains as well as illuminating occasional herds of elk and big horned sheep. All the while Gogo Nde is singing, singing, singing – By the Rivers of Babylon, I’ll Fly Away, Swing Low Sweet Chariot – and on and on. Occasionally Thandeka, who is sleeping stretched out across several seats, lifts her head and sings a few lines with her. As the deep timbre of Gogo’s voice mixes with the higher delicate voice of Thandeka, I feel I am witnessing an alchemy of sorts, where suffering and heartache is transformed into courage and strength. Somehow listening to their song I move a bit closer to the mystery of the question that is asked of them time and time again while we are on the road:

“How do you do it?”

They do it together, here and at home. They give each other the strength to stand and one- by-one they pull those around them to their feet until there is a community standing together and turning the tide of HIV and AIDS.

Their song continues…as does the Caravan.

Onward.

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