Bill Sizemore for The Virginian-Pilot 6 months ago

South African grandmothers attack the AIDS plague

NORFOLK -- Felicia Mfamana and Thelma Nkone are grandmothers. In an ideal world, they'd have reached a time in their lives when they could sit back and take it easy.

But that is not their world. They are from South Africa, where the AIDS pandemic has decimated a generation. The country has a 10 percent HIV infection rate, the highest in the world. Many older South Africans have buried children felled by the disease.

The result is a generation of orphans -- their children's children, more than 1 million of them -- to be cared for. That job has fallen to the grandmothers.

An Old Dominion University professor and her students have formed close ties with some of these resilient women, two of whom are visiting the campus this week to tell their story.

Mfamana, 73, has lost two daughters, a son and a grandson to AIDS. Nkone, 62, has lost a brother, a nephew and a great-niece. She has a sister who is living with HIV.

They are among some 300 grandmothers in Khayelitsha township, outside Cape Town, who 10 years ago formed a self-help group, Grandmothers Against Poverty and AIDS.

GAPA provides workshops on nutrition, parenting skills and legal rights, and runs an after-school education and nutrition program for 200 children.

The grandmothers attack the AIDS plague at its roots, distributing condoms on the streets of the township and preaching the message of safe sex -- a powerful act in a society where it is not women's traditional place to confront men on such issues.

The women learn skills such as knitting, crocheting and beadwork, which they put to use making aprons, hats, gloves and other items to sell. The extra income supplements their $120 monthly government pensions.

Mfamana and her household of 11 recently moved into a proper house from a leaky shack where water poured down the walls every time it rained.

GAPA's strength lies in the mutual support the grandmothers provide each other, Mfamana said in an interview.

"GAPA gave me a power in my life," she said.

The grandmothers' story is told in words and pictures in a new book, "The Nevergiveups," by South African photographer Eric Miller and writer Jo-Anne Smetherham, who are traveling with Mfamana and Nkone on a two-stop U.S. tour. They visited American University in Washington, D.C., before coming to ODU.

The project, which includes a traveling exhibit of Miller's photographs, has been a labor of love.

The grandmothers' life stories encompass South Africa's travails before, during and after the white-minority apartheid regime that ended in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela, the country's first democratically elected president.

"They are a repository of our history," Miller said.

The name "Nevergiveups" is a translation of a word in the grandmothers' tribal Xhosa language that seemed to encapsulate their spirit, Miller said.

"We never give up," said Nkone, who was wearing a beaded necklace that she made. "We never go back, we go forward. We grow stronger and stronger."

This is the first time members of GAPA have visited the United States, though they have become accustomed to meeting American college students in South Africa.

Jennifer Fish, chairwoman of ODU's women's studies department, has taken a group of 60 students to the grandmothers' township every year since 2008 as part of a "service learning" study-abroad course. The students have provided support to GAPA in a variety of ways, including fundraising.

"Students go there and they feel quite transformed," Fish said. "It's a much richer education than they get sitting in a classroom."

The grandmothers always look forward to the students' visits, said Vivienne Budaza, GAPA's executive director. It's not about dollars, she added. It's about knowing that someone on the other side of the world cares.

"Life has gotten much, much better because we have a voice now," Budaza said. "We may still be economically disadvantaged, but we have a voice.

"We're not victims. We're victors."

Bill Sizemore, 757-446-2276, bill.sizemore@pilotonline.com ___

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