Joanna Henry, Grandmothers Campaign Coordinator with the Stephen Lewis Foundation, brings us another reflection on her time on the AfriGrand Caravan with Nkulie and Regina. (You can read her first dispatch here.)
21 days, 6 provinces, 26 events…and counting.
Well the Caravan is currently in London, Ontario, although the view outside my window this morning is cityscape of Edmonton, Alberta! I left several days ago to attend a regional gathering of the grandmothers in Alberta. Other staff members of the Foundation have climbed aboard the Caravan including Ky’okusinga Kirunga (Field Representative) who is based in Montréal and covered the French speaking events, Helen Silbiger (Community Campaigns Liaison) joined them in Ottawa, Healy Thompson (Dare Organizer) in Kingston and Zahra Mohamed (Programme Officer) in Toronto. A new nurse also joined the crew in Ottawa — Sionnach Lukeman from Antigonish.
I do miss the Caravan terribly, but I also know everyone is in extremely good hands.
I feel a sense of urgency to capture the immediacy of the Caravan before I am completely swept up into other work. Writer’s instinct tells me that the piece that should naturally follow the previous update is of course a deserving tribute to Regina – this incredible woman with the heart of a grandmother, the hands of a healer, the mind and experience of a woman who runs a complex organization, and the vision of a leader devoted to rebuilding her community.
I have so much to write, missives seem poised on the tips of my fingers – but there is a problem here that stands in the way that stills my hands and quiets my voice.
Listening to Regina and Nkulie night after night on the Caravan it is impossible not to be inspired by their strength, their tenacity and their courage. But behind these sentiments I also find myself shadowed by deeper, more troubling emotions.
Yes, I am profoundly moved by Nkulie’s courage, but I hate that her mother is gone. The cost seems too great and the irreversibility of it all so profoundly heartbreaking. It is hard to swallow the needlessness of this loss and the overwhelming injustice of this pandemic that breaks like a tsunami over the lives of individuals who fall in its path by chance of birth.
Working at the Foundation I am immersed daily in the staggering numbers that represent the impact of this disease on the African continent. Numbers like 14 million children orphaned by this disease and less than 30% of those requiring treatment with access to these life saving drugs. Spending time with Regina and Nkulie I am reminded again of the individuals behind these numbers, the profound cost they have paid to step into the roles of leaders and what they have endured just to be in the position to bring their message of inspiration to each community along the Caravan’s path.
As a result, my hands keep balling into fists whenever I sit at the keyboard and instead of typing – I find myself with an urge to pound. Not the most productive state for writing let me assure you.
But before I become immobilized completely by this sorrow I realize that here is where I can take a page from Regina’s lesson book. For I have never met a woman with a greater gift for tackling the enormity of situation by paying attention to the smallest details. No where is this more evident than her work with children and teens orphaned by HIV and AIDS.
Most of these children come under the care of Tateni when their ill parents start receiving home-based nursing care. According to Regina, “Tateni always treats the whole family, not just the one person who is sick.” Nkulie came under their care when her mother fell ill and continues with Tateni now that her mother is gone.
Tateni currently cares for over 300 children and teens orphaned by HIV and AIDS and their programs provide for both the practical as well as psycho-social needs of vulnerable children including taking photographs of the children and making albums – so they have a record of their childhood. Regina tracks down photos of the children’s parent if any exist, mainly finding them through salvaging old ID cards. As she explains “Many children lose their parents when they are so young and will grow without remembering the face of their mother – just imagine it.”
Birthday parties are thrown for orphaned children, complete with complete with cake, birthday cards and photos “so these children can feel just like normal children with parents who love them.”
Regina gets old mirrors donated to Tateni and distributes them to home with orphaned children and teens “so they can see themselves for the first time, they can know ‘oh, this is what I look like, aren’t I smart?’ or ‘I have big ears’ or ‘look at that nose’ and they can know who they are.”
All of these activities operate from the same principal – that a sense of self and identity is one of the greatest assets a child and young adult can have when negotiating their way through life, and is the very thing least likely to develop in a child with no parents. Add to this the increased financial insecurity inherited by most orphaned children and you have a potent recipe for extreme vulnerability.
To borrow an explaination from Nkulie: “Young boys often end up in gangs because they are trying to make money to feed toddlers at home. Young girls have to get a ‘sugar daddy’ so they can eat – how can you go to school with an empty stomach?” (Nkulie gets a hot meal from Tateni’s drop-in centre for teens – sometimes her only meal of the day and she credits this resource for keeping her from “having to get a boyfriend”).
This is why Tateni’s programs are such a brilliant combination of meeting practical needs like food as well as tables and lights where children can do homework at the centre (since most homes are not equipped with either) along with the less obvious needs of motherless child.
These are just a handful of examples collected from various Caravan events – there are so many more that speak to the incredible care and thought that go into Tateni’s programmes, but perhaps I will finish with this one shared with those in Summerside, Prince Edward Island:
Regina operates from a simple philosophy that every child has a dream and if they can see a way forward to achieving that dream “they will be wearing blinders to all these distractions, pressures and troubles, because they will be looking ahead into their future.” She tells the story of Julian – a boy that arrived at Tateni suddenly one day looking the “worse for wear”. When she asked him about his father he answered in an offhanded way “dead.” When asked about his mother – “dead”. According to Regina “we knew we had to help that boy so we started asking him about his goals, what did he want? He answered ‘to be a swimmer in Germany.’ We didn’t understand why, but that was what was in his heart and in his head and we knew we would do everything to make this happen.”
Currently Julian is under the care of Tateni and is getting swimming lessons.
According to Regina “We don’t have to understand, but somehow, some way, that boy will swim in Germany one day. That’s what focuses him. That’s what keeps him alive.”
On a side note, Nkulie wishes to be a lawyer and Regina has pledged to do all she can to open these doors to her as well.
Regina doesn’t get bogged down in the enormity of the task at hand and I am pretty sure she is not overly occupied with the tally of HIV/AIDS orphans across the continent. She is intent however on empowering every one of the children and young people that cross her path. She rolls up her sleeves and gets the work done.
It is this same focus and strength that she brings to each stop on the AfriGrand Caravan. Over and over she shares her stories to communities that have gathered to provide space, without agenda, without expectation – and listen. Over and over again I am witnessing communities that respond in turn with renewed vigour for supporting the work of grassroots organizations such as Tateni through any means available to them.
I am reminded that through this potent combination the tide of HIV and AIDS is turning in sub-Saharan Africa.
My rage will always remain, but as I witness the generosity and courage of Regina and Nkulie, the responsiveness and compassion of these Canadian communities – my own strength is restored and I find that my fists can relax and I realize my hands can be put to better use than pounding surfaces in frustration. It takes a global community to turn the tide of HIV and AIDS and I am ready again, no, honoured again, to roll up my sleeves and add my voice, hands and heart to this work.