Grandmothers stand united in Canada and Africa
In many parts of Africa, when a person gets old their children become their sole means of support.
For many of these seniors however, the HIV/AIDS pandemic has not only robbed them of their children, but also left them in a position where they must care for their orphaned grandchildren.
Oakville grandmothers groups, who are fighting to support these African grandmothers, heard all about this predicament at The Kensington retirement residence Thursday in a presentation by ROTOM (Reach One Touch One Ministries) Director and Founder Kenneth Mugayehwenkyi of Uganda.
It was part of the launch party for Halton’s Stride to Turn the Tide Walk, an annual fundraiser for the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which will take place here June 9.
Those at Mugayehwenkyi’s presentation also heard about how just a few dedicated people can make a real difference in the lives of many.
“One of the things I would hope to communicate to them is to thank them very much because grandmothers in Canada have stood with grandmothers in Africa for a long time now. Most of the support we get is from grandmothers here,” said Mugayehwenkyi.
“Secondly, I want to give them a message of hope. To tell them that it is possible to turn the tide and change the impact of HIV/AIDS if we just continue. I would encourage them to just keep going.”
Born in a remote Ugandan village in 1968, Mugayehwenkyi immigrated to America where he began a promising career as a social service worker.
During this period he and his wife Miriam sponsored two orphaned girls in Uganda, ages five and seven, who were living in the care of their elderly grandmother after their parents’ death.
“On one of my visits home I went to visit them. The first thing I saw was that their house was really broken down. I was afraid it would collapse on them so I helped them to build a new house,” said Mugayehwenkyi.
“During that process I watched this family and I could not tell who was helping the other. The children are too young. The grandmother is too old. The grandmother was depressed, stressed, lonely and miserable because she had lost her whole family.”
Mugayehwenkyi said the experience had a profound impact on him and forced him to question why he was working in America when there were so many suffering in his homeland.
After returning to Uganda, Mugayehwenkyi began by just giving the grandmother of his sponsor children someone to talk to and helping her around the house.
She directed him to some friends of hers who were in the same situation and also needed help.
As time went by, Mugayehwenkyi became aware of other basic needs these grandmothers and grandchildren had, such as medical care, which were not being met.
Eventually Mugayehwenkyi was able to get some funding from the Stephen Lewis Foundation (SLF) and bring on staff to create ROTOM.
“I started this organization nine years ago and we now reach out to 600 older people and 120 grandchildren in Uganda,” he said.
“When AIDS took away their children, who are their providers, it took away their access to health, access to food security and left them with the burden of grandchildren to look after. The services we provide include paying for all medical care for the seniors so they can access health care. We pay for doctor’s fees, we pay for drugs, we pay for transportation to the health centres.”
Other services include paying for school fees for the grandchildren so they can attend school and paying for medical care for these grandchildren when they need it.
The grandmothers are also provided with food every week while those strong enough to work are also given the means to grow vegetables.
ROTOM also facilitates meetings between the elderly people it helps just so they can talk with someone who knows what they are going through.
“They pray together, they sing together, they dance together and through this process they are able to support each other,” said Mugayehwenkyi.
“They share their burdens and that helps.”
Counseling is also provided to those grandparents who have deep emotional issues.
Mugayehwenkyi said the need he is faced with can be overwhelming at times.
He currently has 70 elderly people waiting to access the services offered by his organization and while he said he would like to help them all he currently does not have the resources to do that.
Even when a person does get into the program sometimes the help ROTOM gives them is not enough.
“There was this old man. He was old, sick and incontinent and because of that no health facility would keep him. We were paying the money for him to be at the health centre, but no hospital would keep him because they didn’t have the care for a person in that situation,” said Mugayehwenkyi.
“We moved him from one hospital to another hospital to another hospital. Because he was not taken care of he ended up dying, in my opinion, prematurely.”
Sad experiences like these, Mugayehwenkyi said, make the good experiences that much more amazing when they take place.
Mugayehwenkyi said he is particularly proud ROTOM’s work in bringing relief to 900 grandparent households in the wake of the 2011 drought in Uganda.
For many of these households ROTOM also taught their aid recipients how to farm and provided them with the necessary tools so they would have a sustainable source of food.
Those too old to fully make use of their land were given assistance by ROTOM in cultivating it.
One woman told Mugayehwenkyi that when it comes time to harvest it will be the first time in her life she had not only enough food for her and her family to eat, but also some to sell.
“That was really touching,” said Mugayehwenkyi.
Halton’s own grandmother groups will walk through Downtown Oakville to raise funds to support Africa’s grandmothers on Saturday, June 9 at 8:30 a.m.
Those participating include Blooms for Africa, Halton Bronte Grandmothers, North Halton Grannies, Oomama and Ubuntu Grandwomen.
“The goal is to raise $1 million. Hopefully we can reach it,” said Judy Henderson, co-chair of the Halton walk.
“I have five grandchildren and the thought of looking after all of them at my age…I can’t even begin to imagine how I would do it and we have things like social services that help you when you need money, free schooling, free health care. The grandmothers we are helping have none of these things.”
For more information about Reach One Touch One Ministries visit www.reachone-touchone.org.