This morning we accompanied Angela, St. Francis’ capable young Grandmothers Officer, on a visit to one of the jajas (grandmothers) in the community. We drove down Jinja’s bumpy red roads through the village, and came to a house set back from the road. Next door, there was a small barn, which houses chickens and two young calves. In the background, we could hear the bleeting of a goat and the grunting of pigs.
On the way to Jaja Sylvia’s house, Angela told us more about St. Francis’ grandmothers programme. Although 120 grannies are currently receiving support – through granny groups, school fees, food parcels, the savings and loan programme, medical care, home visits and more – there are many more grandmothers in the community who would like to take part. One of the hardest things, Angela said, is having to turn grannies away because they don’t have the capacity to take on additional women at this time. There are so many grannies who could use the support.
The grandmothers being supported through St. Francis are either HIV positive themselves, or are caring for HIV-positive grandchildren, or both. On average, Angela said, they are caring for 8 or 9 children at home. I was surprised to learn that so many of the grannies are HIV positive themselves – an estimated 70 out of 120 in the group have the virus. HIV infection among older people is not frequently discussed, particularly in relation to sexuality – it is often seen as a taboo subject.
Jaja Sylvia first came to the St. Francis Health Centre in 2006. After caring for her adult children through the final stages of AIDS, she had seen the disease and the toll that it had taken on their lives. When she began to fall ill herself, she went and got tested at the centre, and learned that she was HIV-positive. St. Francis provided counselling, antiretroviral drugs and food parcels for her family, and her health began to improve dramatically. Today, she says, she is strong and feels healthy.
Sylvia was among the first grandmothers to be supported by St. Francis. She has lost four children to AIDS, and is now caring for five of her orphaned grandchildren, ranging from age three to fourteen. All of the grandchildren in her care are attending school – except the youngest, who is not yet old enough – and St. Francis is paying for their school fees. Jaja Sylvia is part of a local granny group and has been taking part in the group’s savings and loan programme. A few months ago, she was able to take out a loan of 100,000 UGS (about $50 CDN) to buy much-needed medicine and supplies for the new calves on her farm. She was able to repay the loan (plus 20% interest) within a month, and is assured future income and sustenance through the milk of the young calves.
In August 2006, Jaja Sylvia was one of a few grannies chosen by St. Francis to participate in the Grandmothers’ Gathering in Toronto. She spoke of the excitement of meeting grandmothers from Canada and from across Africa, and to learn that she was not alone. “It was very encouraging to learn that grandmothers across Africa were facing the same challenges,” she said. After returning home to Uganda, Jaja Sylvia helped to set up the grandmothers programme at St. Francis. With funding from the Stephen Lewis Foundation, they began starting groups, giving out loans for income-generation, providing counsellors and paying school fees. As a result, she said, there has been a big change in the community.
Jaja Sylvia asked me to pass on to the grandmothers of Canada that she and her fellow jajas are grateful for their support and solidarity, and that it has made a difference in their lives. She hopes to meet more Canadian grandmothers in the future – perhaps at a future Grandmothers’ Gathering.
Her hope, like so many other grandmothers in the community, is for her grandchildren to be able to attend secondary school, and university or vocational training. “There are so many intelligent children,” she said. “We want them to grow up to be whatever they want to be. We want them to be good people – educated, disciplined. We want the same as everyone else.”