David Smith

After losing adult children to AIDS, they often become the head of a household.

Their collective wisdom is incalculable — and so is the collective burden they carry when families are torn apart by AIDS.

Africa's newest special interest group is that of grandmothers. They will attend their first special conference this week to share experiences and call for international recognition of their uniquely difficult circumstances.

A summit of grandparents in the West might prompt jokes about bingo and dentures, but the inaugural African Grandmothers' Gathering, starting in Swaziland on Thursday, is a gravely serious affair.

More than 450 grandmothers from 12 African countries will meet to discuss the impact of losing adult children to AIDS, becoming the head of a household and raising grief-stricken grandchildren as their own.

These forgotten victims hope to build a “solidarity movement” across Africa to make the case that grandmothers need targeted support from international donors.

A lost voice

“It's a lost group, a lost voice,” said Philile Mlotshwa of Swapol (Swaziland Positive Living), which is organising the event in partnership with the Canadian-based Stephen Lewis Foundation . “They are the heroes yet no one has gone to them to say we recognise your efforts.” The organisers say it is time to heed the “indomitable and indefatigable” grandmothers who step forward to care for children, sometimes as many as 10 to 15 in one household. “They are holding together the social fabric of communities across the continent.” Ms Mlotshwa continued: “Grandparents have always played an important role in solving disputes and as a source of knowledge. But now the younger generation is not there: people aged 29 to 49 are dying from HIV-AIDS ... Grandmothers are at the frontline of the HIV-AIDS impact. They have to pick up the pieces and move on. They don't have time to grieve because the children need to be looked after. They are doing this without any income.

In spite of challenges

“They are sick with diabetes and high blood pressure. We are seeing women who are carrying on in spite of the challenges and the fear of what will happen to these grandchildren if they die.” Ms Mlotshwa said she hoped the gathering would raise awareness of grandmothers' needs. “Various responses to HIV-AIDS have been designed but not yet targeted at them.” The grandmothers are likely to seek international support for grief counselling, access to healthcare for themselves and children in their care, safe and adequate housing, economic security, safety from gender-based violence, raising community awareness and breaking stigma, support in raising grief-stricken grandchildren and access to education for children.

Grandmothers from Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe will be represented.

Stephen Lewis, chair of the foundation, said: “Grandmothers [are] the unsung heroes of Africa. These magnificently courageous women bury their own children and then look after their orphaned grandchildren, calling on astonishing reserves of love and emotional resilience.”