Ottawa Citizen July 7, 2017. By Wayne Scanlan.
If you want something done in this country, ask a grandmother.
Stephen Lewis, educator and former politician, did this more than a decade ago and it resulted in a significant contribution to African grandmothers left with orphans from the AIDS crisis that continues to rage in Africa. Lewis, of course, was the United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa from 2001-06.
The Stephen Lewis Foundation continues to support AIDS work in Africa, in part through the efforts of grandmothers in Canada, including Ottawa’s own ‘Grassroot Grannies.’ The local granny group came together 11 years ago, inspired after Lewis brought a number of African grandmothers to Toronto in 2006 to share their stories.
Clearly, the grandmas in both continents are formidable. In Africa, once they bury their own children from AIDS-related diseases, the grandmothers are left to raise their grandkids, feed, clothe and educate them.
In North America (also Australia and the UK), hundreds of ‘Grandmothers to Grandmothers’ groups have risen over the past decade in response. Canadian elders from 240 groups have raised $25 million in aid that goes directly to grandmothers in African countries.
When it comes to pitching in, Ottawa grandmothers are not getting dropped to the back of the peloton. Sue Cousineau first formed the Grassroot Grannies after hearing about the session in Toronto involving Lewis and the African grandmothers.
Cousineau was already part of an avid cycling group called Women on Wheels (WOW), many of them retired teachers, nurses and businesswomen, so it was a matter of time before the two factions – the social conscience and the riding women – merged.
Though already actively fund-raising – their annual spring plant sale of perennials remains a staple, along with a books and breakfast event in Kanata – the bike event is the largest. Last year the ride raised $65,000. The concept was hatched in Cuba, where Nancy Hough happened to be bike touring. There she met a group of cyclists from British Columbia who had been raising money with a three-day bike ride. Hough took note.
“By the time I came back, I had it in my mind how we could do something similar,” Hough says.
Hough and the grannies launched the annual three-day tour around Ottawa that is about to enter its eighth edition. On Sept. 6, some 22 riders, including four men (often labeled gran-others), along with two support vans, will set out from the Bushtukah store in Stittsville. Bushtukah is a prime sponsor of the charity ride and provides the flashy jerseys that make a statement on the road.
The tour will include night stops in Perth and Metcalfe as well as lunches, organized by local grandmother associations in Almonte, Merrickville and on Riverside Drive. The lunches are paid for by the registered riders and help raise money for those host groups. Over the years, the riders and their hosts have become good friends.
“It’s a very warm feeling,” Hough says.
On that third and final day of riding, the ladies will make a stop at the Bayview Public School, where the group had made a presentation earlier this year promoting fitness and giving among the kids. The ride ends at the Westboro Bushtukah on Richmond Road.
“I’m 72, so every year becomes a little harder,” says Shirley Mander, who documents the group’s ventures. “We should be training a little longer, but sometimes life gets in the way.”
When the going gets especially tough, all the women have to do is imagine life for the elderly women in Africa and the first-world aches and pains fade away.
“When we raise funds and we’re sitting on this bike ride for two-and-a-half days and our legs are sore, or we’re fighting the wind, we think this is nothing compared to what these older women do in Africa, day in and day out,” Cousineau says. From having visited Africa with others from Canada, Cousineau knows first-hand what the women confront.
“Imagine, as a granny, having to go back and raise a brood of five to 10 kids, and you don’t have a job, no means to feed them,” Cousineau says. “Where to (house) them?
“Over time, they have learned skills for gardening while raising chickens or goats. Some do hand bead work and sell it. They’re very inventive. Some are getting old, and need medical help. They’re full of arthritis like we are but they keep going.
“The resilience – we marvel at it every year.”
Money raised by Canadian grandmothers “gran-others” does not buy AIDS drugs, but focuses on efforts on the ground for grandmothers. Food. Clothes. Access to mobile nursing staff. With drought and refugee issues, problems get worse.
For more information or to support the charities, visit grassrootgrannies.com or stephenlewisfoundation.org.
So much for the outdated image of grannies in their dotage.
“We’re not rocking-chair grannies,” Cousineau says. “Maybe when we turn 90.”