Blog: Aeroplan in Africa

The loyalty program goes 'beyond miles' with the Stephen Lewis Foundation to the 2010 Grandmothers Gathering.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, grandmothers are parenting their orphaned grandchildren in the most challenging of circumstances. Some have more than a dozen children in their care. Aeroplan and its members donated more than seven million miles to the Stephen Lewis Foundation (SLF) to fly 42 Canadian grandmothers to the first-ever African Grandmothers Gathering in Manzini, Swaziland. (As background, Aeroplan’s Beyond Miles program invites members to join Aeroplan in supporting eight Canadian charitable organizations through the donation of Aeroplan Miles including The Stephen Lewis Foundation. Aeroplan’s Beyond Miles program also supported the first Grandmothers Gathering organized by the Stephen Lewis Foundation in 2006 which brought together 300 grandmothers from Africa and Canada in Toronto.)

The grandmothers took part in the gathering May 6 to 8 as part of the ‘Grandmothers to Grandmothers’ campaign of the SLF. They joined close to 500 African grandmothers from 12 countries for two days of workshops and discussion, and then rallied with more than 2,000 participants for a solidarity march to draw attention to the transformative role that grandmothers play in the AIDS pandemic.

I work for Aeroplan and had the honour of joining SLF and the grandmothers on their journey. I participated in workshops and joined the grandmothers on a march across Manzini. This occasion marked the first time that African grandmothers who have been living with the AIDS pandemic for over two decades have come together as experts in what it means to lose a generation and to be responsible for the young lives and spirits left behind. It is the first chance for most to share their experiences as elderly parents and caregivers to the bereaved. Canadian grandmothers, who will hear first-hand the needs and aspirations of the African grandmothers, will take those messages home, and spread the word from coast to coast to raise awareness and funds in support of their African peers to help turn the tide of AIDS in Africa.

Project visit in Johannesburg, South Africa

On May 4th, the 42 Canadian grandmothers were broken into smaller groups to visit projects that SLF supports in and around Johannesburg, South Africa.

I had the privilege of accompanying seven Canadian grannies to Ekupholeni, a mental health facility in Jo’Burg. Ekupholeni means ‘place of healing’ in Afrikaans. I’ve never in my life experienced such a warm welcome…the African grannies greeted us like members of their own family, singing and dancing and giving us each a hug that I’ll never forget.

Ekupholeni was developed in 1994 to provide mental health outreach to South Africans in need. Much of their work is focused on HIV/AIDS and they specialize in youth at risk, gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS bereavement. (More than 5 million South Africans are affected by HIV/AIDS – which is said to be more than in any other country in the world!) Many of the African grannies go to Ekupholeni for social support to discuss their issues, challenges and the burdens they face daily from the AIDS pandemic. Many of them have lost children to AIDS and are raising their grandchildren. One of the African grannies said that Ekupholeni has ‘helped heal our souls’ through grief counselling. The grannies truly have an unrelenting focus on a healthy and happier future for their grandchildren which drives the grandmothers every single day to move beyond their grief and challenges. (More information about projects supported by SLF can be found on their web site at Stephenlewisfoundation.org)

Our morning was spent listening to the African grannies’ stories and touring the facility. In the afternoon, we were fortunate to be welcomed into two of the African grannies’ homes in one of Jo’Burg’s townships. This was an eye-opening experience and really showed me how every donation (be it miles or dollars) really makes a TREMENDOUS difference in their lives. (If you’d like to donate your Aeroplan Miles to the grannies, please visit Aeroplan.com/donate.)

Day 1 and 2 – Grandmothers Gathering, Manzini, Swaziland:

The first day of the gathering began early. Many spoke powerfully about the need for immediate action to address the needs of the African grandmothers including Sipihwe Hlope from Swaziland Positive Living (SWAPOL), one of the event organizers.

The day included the opening ceremonies of the gathering – a day filled with speeches by SLF, SWAPOL, the Prime Minister of Swaziland, along with other dignitaries and organizations. Her Majesty the Queen Mother of Swaziland gave the keynote address.

What did I learn? Only one in five children in Swaziland have two parents and approximately 36% of the population of Swaziland has HIV/AIDS. Very scary statistics, but the grandmothers showed strength and solidarity as they sang and danced the day and night away.

Day 2 of the gathering was filled with a rollercoaster of emotions from joy to anger to sorrow as the Canadian and African grandmothers came together in 18 separate workshops led by the African grannies on topics such as HIV/AIDS and poverty, the need for social security, sustainable economic empowerment and gender-based violence. Women’s empowerment was a major theme of all the workshops. Lots of tears were shed and lots of hugs and in the end we all came together to sing and dance again.

Day 3 – The March, Grandmothers Gathering, Manzini, Swaziland:

Phezukumkhono! This is a statement that is shouted out energetically by African grandmothers throughout the gathering…it means power to the people or more specifically power to women/grannies.

May 8 was the last day of the gathering which began at 7 a.m. with 42 Canadian grannies joining thousands of African grannies to march the downtown streets of Manzini to the Mavuso Trade Centre…this was quite a spectacular sight with many Swazi’s cheering us on amongst the streets.

The result of the last few days of workshops and sharing stories amongst the grannies is the Manzini statement. The Manzini statement demands action and recognition for the pivotal role grandmothers are playing in the effort to turn the tide of AIDS in Africa. It calls for violence against grandmothers to cease, asks for the grandmothers to have support in the form of pensions and social security and states that laws must be passed to ensure the safety and rights of grandmothers and their grandchildren.

I would like to thank Aeroplan, the SLF and the wonderful Canadian grandmothers who welcomed me as an ‘honorary’ grannie during this amazing experience. It was amazing to see the work that SLF is doing in Africa and to hear the stories from the African grandmothers. In the words of Ilana Landsberg-Lewis and Stephen Lewis ‘Grandmothers of Africa, we love you, we honour you and we salute you.’

For more information on the Manzini statement of the grandmothers, please visit: Stephenlewisfoundation.org or Grandmotherscampaign.org/slf.html. To donate Aeroplan Miles to the African grandmothers through the Stephen Lewis Foundation, please visit Aeroplan.com/donate.