On May 3rd and 4th, the 42 Canadian grandmothers – in South Africa and Swaziland for the Grandmothers’ Gathering – broke into small groups and went to visit projects around Johannesburg that are supported by the Stephen Lewis Foundation. Eight of us, accompanied by a photographer and a videographer, had the huge privilege of visiting The Big Shoes Foundation.
The Big Shoes Foundation is “all about medical interventions that assist children to grow up and fill big shoes.” The staff practice paediatric health and palliative care that is holistic and focuses on the quality of the physical, emotional and spiritual lives of children and families. Grandmothers and the children in their care can make use of services like HIV information, bereavement counselling, food parcels, and money for transportation.
The offices of Big Shoes are located in what used to be Johannesburg’s specialist hospital for children. The building is now full of NGOs working with children, and there is a real energy to the place. The Big Shoes space is bright and welcoming: murals and photos adorn the walls and there are several play areas and diaper changing stations.
We were greeted by the full staff, and tea and home-baked cookies were served. We also met Muriel – a South African grandmother who volunteers for Big Shoes, visiting infants in hospital and bringing them the cuddly and colourful teddy bears she makes for them, even though she is almost completely blind.
Next, we were off to the Soweto Hospice, a partner of Big Shoes. A visit to the wards was heart wrenching. A mother sat by her baby’s side, watching him sleep and holding his hand as his tiny body fought against TB. There were two nurses tending to other infants, and there was a well-used bunk bed in the corner where parents could rest.
But Soweto Hospice is not a place of pure despair. Upon arrival, we were taken into a large room, full of sewing machines and large tables where men and women were busy beading beautiful jewellery. This was the home of the Empowerment Project: an initiative that teaches HIV positive people in the community to sew and bead, giving them a chance to earn some income while spending time in a warm, communal atmosphere. Gertrude, a volunteer teacher with the project, explained to us that the patients get three full meals a day when at the project – a vital component to the success of their ARV regime. “They don’t feel so sick when they come here” she explained. “They are busy and they have company. It is a happy place”. The crafts were beautiful and meticulously produced, and the Canadian grandmothers made several purchases for themselves, their children and their grandchildren back home.
We could have stayed for ages, chatting with the patients and watching them produce these delicate, intricate pieces, but this week was International Paediatric Care Week and the staff were rushing to put the finishing touches on a major event. The theme of the week was “Sharing the Care” – such a fitting one for the work being done in this community.
Next, we headed for Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, one of Johannesburg’s biggest health care facilities. It is a sprawling campus of buildings assigned to every conceivable condition and need, but we headed straight for the paediatric ward. Here, after a quick tour, we were greeted by 7 African grandmothers, all of whom have been supported by Big Shoes. As is always the case when Canadian and African grandmothers meet, the sense of solidarity was palpable: there were hugs, tears, singing, dancing. One brave South African grandmother stood up to tell her story: her 17 year old son had died very recently, and her pain was raw. The grandmothers rushed to her side, hugging her and stroking her, and telling her how strong she was. But she had started something – and once she was comforted, each granny took turns telling their story too.
“The metaphor of you coming to us is incredibly powerful” said Luke, the Executive Director of Big Shoes. “That people who don’t even live in this country care so much about the children of this country sends us a strong message of love.”