Grandmother speaks of struggle against HIV/AIDS

Grandmothers in Africa are confident that, with a little more help, they can defeat the epidemic of HIV/AIDS that is destroying their families.

Aaron Lightning

Aaron Lightning

Grandmothers in Africa are confident that, with a little more help, they can defeat the epidemic of HIV/AIDS that is destroying their families.

A new generation of young Africans who have lost their parents to the disease will grow up better equipped both socially and medically to live healthier lives through the work of grass roots organizations like Swaziland Positive Living (SWAPOL), 56-year-old grandmother Tsabile Simelane told members of the Downtown Rotary Club in Red Deer on Monday.

“We are so grateful to come to Canada to try to share the experience and the challenges that we have in the Sub-Sahara,” Simelane said in her presentation, arranged through AfriGrand Caravan, a cross-Canada tour organized by the Canada-based Stephen Lewis Foundation.

The Red Deer stop, including lunch with Rotarians and a potluck supper at The Hub, was hosted by members of GrammaLink, a local group organized through the Sunnybrook United Church to support African grandmothers raising orphaned children.

With Simelane was 19-year-old Thandeka Carol Motsa, who had hoped to become a nurse before AIDS left her family in tatters.

The eldest of four children, Motsa was 12 when her mother died of AIDS. Just three days later, their father was killed in an accident, leaving the young girl on her own to care for three little sister and brothers.

Motsa and her family are now getting help from SWAPOL, one of almost 300 projects supported by the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which was set up to help people deal with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa. However, unable to continue her studies, she has had to abandon her dream of becoming a nurse.

A retired public servant and a founding member of SWAPOL, Simelane now cares for 30 grandchildren orphaned by AIDS, including some who have themselves been infected with the disease, through birth or through contact with infected parents.

People in the audience wiped tears from their eyes as the two women spoke of their struggles to look after orphaned children on a continent where so many adults in the prime of their lives have died because they don’t have adequate support to help them fight their infections.

The anti-retroviral drugs that control AIDS are free of charge and readily available, Simelane said later. But people wait too long to be tested for the disease in the first place. Then, they have immeasurable difficulty getting the drugs they need to fight opportunistic infections like influenza or malaria.

SWAPOL now provides two mobile clinics that travel to participating communities to provide the support, including encouraging people to get tested earlier, before their infections elevate from HIV to AIDS, said Simelane. With more help, SWAPOL could get to more people before it’s too late to save them, she said.

GrammaLink founder Shirley Challoner said having the two women available to speak directly to potential donors provided a huge boost in the fight against AIDS in Africa at a time when charitable dollars are spread thin.

“For me, it’s quite heartwarming and inspiring to see them and have them here with us as grandmothers who have been working with them and for them in this part of the world,” said Challoner.

Part of the difficulty in raising funds here has been that people don’t really get the message when it comes secondhand, she said.

“We’re hoping that, with raising of awareness, more people will want to be involved. Everybody needs to connect with whatever resonates with them. For me, it resonates to be connecting with the (African grandmothers) because I am a grandmother.”

Challoner said she can’t imagine how she would cope if her own eight grandchildren were thrust into her care.