In praise of grandmothers

In praise of grandmothers

Tariro grandmother Ambuya Natalie

In my last post, I wrote about Vanessa M., who lives with her elderly grandparents in Highfield.  In today’s post, I focus on Tariro’s grandparents, and especially on grandmothers, who we’ve observed taking on the lion’s share of caring for orphaned children within their families and communities. As Stephen Lewis, former UN Speical Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, observes,

The ‘grandmother phenomenon’ is the dominant orphan programme for the moment, I think, in much of east and southern Africa.

Photographer Steve Simon has produced a beautiful photo essay he calls “The Grandmother Spirit,” documenting “the determination, strength, resiliency, and inspiration of The African Grandmother- the heart, soul and hands of response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic there.”

Revealing both the sorrows and joys of raising orphaned grandchildren, Simon’s photos are a vivid illustration of the absence of an entire missing generation in Africa; as Zimbabwean musician Oliver Mtukudzi sings,

The young lead the way
The workers lead the way
Only elderly men and women are left

In addition, Simon’s photo essay references another powerful quote by Lewis on the role grandmothers play as the pillars of their communities:

We almost never think of the grandmothers, except in passing.  Yet they are emerging as the unheralded heroes of the continent, fast becoming the true, resilient, magnificent hearts of the struggle of the continent.

In May 2010, over 400 grandmothers from around Africa met during the first ever African Grandmothers’ Gathering in Manzini, Swaziland, one of the nations hit hardest by HIV/AIDS.  As a manifesto released by grandmothers participating in the event stated:

We are the backbone of our communities; with our love and commitment we protect and nurture our orphaned children. Africa cannot survive without us.

Like many grandmothers around Africa, the grandmothers caring for Tariro students had hoped to someday be taken care of by their children; instead, they have buried their own children, and have taken on the responsibility of raising their grandchildren. Our grandmothers include women such as Vanessa’s grandmother Ambuya Kundai (below), who cares for four orphaned children.

Ambuya Kundai

Suffering from intense ongoing pain in her side, Ambuya Kundai has trouble doing basic housework, yet every time I go to visit her and check up on the family, she is sure to offer me a plate of sadza.  Despite the family’s meager resources, Ambuya Kundai wants to make sure I won’t every leave her home hungry.

Ambuya Bobo

Tariro’s other grandmothers include Sabina’s grandmother Ambuya Bobo (above), who raised both Sabina and her cousins Memory and Morgan.  Always supportive of Tariro, Ambuya Bobo hosts all of our meetings in the neighborhood of Epworth at her compound, a collection of brick and thatch rooms around a cleared, dusty courtyard.

On a personal level, even outside of Tariro, many of the people I have come to know and love are grandparents raising orphaned children.  These include one of my favorite grandmothers, Amai John (below), whom I visited in May at her new, two-roomed house on a resettled farm just outside of Harare, where she was providing for an orphaned nephew.

Amai John

Africa’s grandparents, of course, also include grandfathers, such as the much-beloved mbira player Sekuru Chigamba (below).  At 71 years old, Sekuru Chigamba grew up on a white-owned farm during apartheid with his father, who was a cook.  He later moved to the township of Highfield, where his family maintains a home, in addition to their rural home near Mt. Darwin.  Having seen several of his children and in-laws die over the last decade, Sekuru Chigamba cares for almost a dozen orphaned grandchildren at his current home in Hatfield.  Sekuru Chigamba, ndimi gamba redu!  You are one of Africa’s true heroes.

Sekuru Chigamba

To all of the grandmothers of Tariro, as well as grandparents the world over raising grandchildren, we say thank you from the bottom of our hearts.  Our work educating and empowering Zimbabwean girls would be meaningless without the daily love, care, and support you provide for our students.


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