Guest blog – Sponsor a Grandparent

This guest blog was contributed by Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall, award winning gardener and author of the Good Granny Guide who recently visited projects in Ethiopia funded by the Sponsor a Grandparent scheme.

First impression of Addis Ababa:  dazzling sunshine and a chaotic kaleidoscope of colour. Ethiopian women love to wear bright, strong, clashing shades of blue, green.

Before we left home, friends said, ‘you’ll find the poverty distressing.’ But somehow I don’t. Yes, there is dire poverty, and grandparents go hungry so their grandchildren can eat, and so they can go to school (school is free, but the uniform, the exercise books and school dinners are not). We came to Ethiopia to see projects funded by Age UK and Help Age International – projects planned specifically to help grandparents who are caring for their grandchildren. The dignity and fortitude of the grandmothers in overcoming their problems are heart-warming and inspiring. They manage to make a little help go a long way., shocking pink, gold, orange, purple. This, and their smiling faces, make it difficult to remember we’re in the poorest country in Africa.

“It’s our duty to care for our grandchildren,” one Granny told us. Then her face lit up; “but it also makes us happy, because we love them so much.”

More grannies than ever before are looking after grandchildren full time, in many cases because the children’s parents have been lost to HIV AIDS, and sometimes because their mothers, single parents, have emigrated to work as maids abroad, in countries where they are only too often dreadfully exploited, and the hoped-for wages never reach home.

The projects we visited are small-scale but they are rooted in local communities and make a big difference. The Eneredada Centre is an oasis in the busy centre of Addis – a courtyard surrounded by simple buildings to provide shelter, workshops, a kitchen and sanitation.

Some 30 elderly women come there daily to spin cotton. Sitting in the courtyard, spinning and gossiping, sometimes giggling like schoolgirls, they gave us the warmest welcome. The spindles are the simplest of gadgets: a wooden disc on a thin stick. It’s harder than it looks. When I had a go, my thread kept breaking, causing much merry mirth. The men who attend the centre then weave the soft cotton thread on traditional wooden looms, making all-enveloping shawls, or gabis. You see them everywhere, worn by both men and women.

The cotton gabis, scarves and shawls, and rugs and baskets made from recycled materials are sold to help fund the Centre, giving the elderly men and women a sense of purpose. The Centre provides each family with a monthly ration of flour, oil and soap, and the more able-bodied and energetic ‘elders’ take food to others who are house-bound, wash them, cut their hair perhaps, and generally care for them.

The Centre gives the elders a meal, perhaps the only one they will have that day, and ensures that those who need medical attention, get it. All were happy to tell us their life stories. One 84-year-old former tree surgeon told us gleefully that he still climbed trees whenever he got the chance. Four women and one man gave a lively and energetic demonstration of traditional dancing, the women shimmying, the many shaking a walking stick instead of a spear. Their companions kept them on the beat. Singing, clapping and swaying.

HelpAge’s employees and volunteers looked on, beaming. They are practical, hard-working and dedicated people, doing a difficult and sometimes heart-rending job, but, like the people they help, always smiling, always cheerful. So, no, the experience was far from distressing. On the contrary, it filled me with optimism.

Find out more about the Sponsor a Grandparent scheme

Read more about Age UK’s international work

Find out more about HelpAge International

One response to “Guest blog – Sponsor a Grandparent

  1. Similarly inspired: Dianne Jeffrey’s visit to Kenya, which like other African countries, has also struggled with the HIV and AIDS epidemic. There are currently 1.1 million children orphaned by HIV and AIDS in the country. 480,000 orphans and vulnerable children are cared for by older carers, who may themselves be HIV positive; and so might the children. In many cases the children become the caregivers for the older person as they start to weaken from the infection.
    I learned that older persons in central Africa are now being targeted with voluntary counselling and testing services for HIV as people over the age of 50 can be infected with HIV through the same routes as anybody else. Of course! Why did I not think of that before? Also persons who became infected in youth and middle age are now growing older, surviving because of the efficacy of
    anti retro-viral drugs which are not a cure, but prolong the ability to survive with reduced immunity. I met Anna (not her real name), She is 70.
    10 years ago Anna’s daughter , a single mother, died of Aids aged 30, leaving Anna with four children under 6.
    Since then Anna has had a loan from the HAI/Big Lottery funded HIV/AIDs multigenerational micro-credit programme

    Given £250 initially, with 6% interest, Andeni bought a cow for milk and calf production, and, with community assistance, she pays back an instalment each year. Each calf sale means one of the children can go to secondary school. The children help with the cow, the vegetable patch and the chickens in Anna’s compound, where her mother-in-law aged 103, in the final stages of dementia, also lives and is completely dependent on Anna. As we talked Anna explained that she used to be a peer educator – trained by HelpAge Kenya to cascade knowledge to her community about HIV/Aids prevention and care, drug adherence and nutrition, and the importance of sanitation. But she had to give up this work to take care of her family. As we talked Anna’s mobile phone, rang…There is hope for her, I thought.

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