Profile of an African grandmother: Jaja Sylvia Nalongo’s Story

Exerpted from a special Globe and Mail supplement about the Stephen Lewis Foundation published in May 2011.

Jaja Sylvia Nalongo (Photo by Thomas Nybo)

Jaja Sylvia Nalongo (Photo by Thomas Nybo)

Maybe you met “Jaja” (Granny) Sylvia Nalongo when she came to Toronto to attend the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers’ Gathering in 2006 as a representative of St. Francis Health Care Services. At that time, St. Francis in Uganda was a busy health clinic, with a small side project caring for and educating 30 orphans and supporting five grandmothers.

You’d remember Sylvia’s strikingly lovely face and her radiant smile — and you might never have guessed that she had cared for four of her adult children as they slowly died from AIDS, was now raising their five orphans, and had recently been diagnosed as HIV-positive herself.

The emotional, physical and economic burden might well have crushed any one of us. But Sylvia, seizing hope, energy and inspiration from the Gathering, discovering and linking with so many African sisters, and connecting with her Canadian counterparts, went back home and changed her world.

She worked with St. Francis to convene a meeting of 300 grandmothers to learn what they most needed and wanted. No surprise there: beyond the urgent daily necessities (food, bedding, clothes), the grandmothers wanted secondary education for their grandchildren.

Since that first meeting, life for hundreds of grandmothers and hundreds upon hundreds of orphans has changed dramatically. A savings and loans fund, run co-operatively by the grandmothers, has spurred a startling growth in vegetable gardening, pig raising, beadwork and crafts. The programme is run with considerable shrewdness and pragmatism by groups of grandmothers who share decision- making, make sure that loans are repaid along with interest and pay out the dividends at the end of the nine month cycle. Along with their rise in living standards came renewed hope, better health, and brighter prospects for the grandchildren.

Something less tangible is also happening here. When Jaja Sylvia visited Canada, it was her first opportunity to realize the common grief and shared purpose that linked her with so many other African women. Lifting her eyes from her daily burden to a wider horizon has given Sylvia a way to understand her own plight, put it in a larger context, and take action on behalf of herself and others. That’s power. Jaja power. It can and will save Africa.

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