African poverty, together with the mounting toll of HIV/AIDS in Africa, has created another terrible legacy; the burden borne by AIDS grandmothers as they bury their children and are left to look after their grandchildren.
HIV/AIDS statistics in Africa present a remorseless picture of infection and death. It is for the survivors too, those many million grandparents and their orphaned grand children that our hearts must ache. They live with unimaginable sadness and grief, much magnified by the increased poverty they endure as the sole breadwinners for those they look after.
Some grandmothers also care for the mothers of the children since they are often sick and not working. Very often they find themselves not even understanding the nature of the illness they are nursing and exposing themselves to HIV. They buy food using the government grant they receive. Some grandmothers are unemployed and sickly not yet eligible to receive a grant.
Although a lot of stories have been written about a child and grandmother in Africa, it so poignantly and powerfully illustrates what the women and children throughout Africa are suffering.
“I must raise and sleep with the orphans on my mind.” The proliferation of orphans has become a deluge; it’s absolutely overwhelming in country after country. Governments are beside themselves: no one has any firm grip on how to handle these millions of frantic children. Extended families and communities struggle to absorb them; grandmothers bury their own children and then try somehow to cope with hordes of grandchildren; child-headed households are an ever-growing phenomenon on the landscape of Africa: it is a nightmare!
I attended a funeral of a 30 year old mother who was HIV positive. Normally at our African funerals, the last tribute to the late person would be singing. As some children sang, the words of the song caught my attention, it began with the words “see us, the children carrying our parents in their coffins to the grave leaving us with our grandmothers who have to slave for us to get education”, and it ended with the words “Help, Help”. I have heard many such stories from many such children. But I have rarely been left in such emotional disarray. It became clear when I spoke to the child whose mother we buried on that day, that this little morsel of a child is really hurting, as she talked of her mother’s trips in and out of hospital, and then the last weeks at home. She wept copiously, uncontrollably; but it was a weeping as if the depths of the sea had been plumbed; the tears didn’t just flow, they gushed and for a moment in time, it was as if this one young girl became the pandemic incarnate.”
Most of us feel that the only thing that separates us from those elderly women in Africa is simply an accident of birth timing. If we had been born some 65 (plus) years ago, the life story of the African grandmothers would be our own. We also believe that once our community knows and fully understand about the pain and hardship caused by the AIDS pandemic in Africa, and how the heroic African grandmothers are the only ones holding devastated families and communities together, they will want to help out.
And so the list goes on. NCM Africa sees the struggle grandmothers are experiencing. One of our future endeavours is to develop a programme that would give psychological support to grandmothers (care givers) and also give them an understanding of the disease and coping mechanisms to deal with the situation they find themselves faced with. In a small way that would help ease their burden.
By Faith Cassim