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Shades of grey

The Great Granny Revolution documents the relationship between women from a small Quebec village and grandmothers of AIDS orphans in South Africa. Ruth Mestechkin reports.


One morning, at 5am, Brenda Rooney and her husband Robert propped up a video camera in Alexandra Township, South Africa, to film a documentary. But there was a hitch: They needed their car to be in a safe place, but they didn't want it peeking out of the shots.

Then, one woman, who was a subject in the film, had an idea. "I'll be back in a minute," she promised. Five hours after the shoot, they walked to the car. And there was someone guarding it.

"I realized," says Rooney, "that we were safe in Alex. These women were looking after us."

These women are called Gogos and they are a group of grandmothers in Alexandra Township, outside of Johannesburg, raising AIDS orphans. The Rooneys' film The Great Granny Revolution documents the partnership of the Gogos with a group of grandmothers from Wakefield, southwestern Quebec, who extend moral and financial support.

The brainwave came a few years ago. "We made a film called Condoms, Fish and Circus Tricks, looking at AIDS and how it affected Africa. It was shown in our little village and it was a fundraiser for the United Church," explains Rooney in a phone interview. "At the end of the showing, someone in the audience said to the minister, "You should meet my mother.' It turned out that his mother had been working in Alexandra Township in a clinic with a group of grandmothers who were raising AIDS orphans."

A few months later, Rose Letwaba, a nurse from the clinic, spoke to Wakefield United Church about the Gogos. Then a bell rang in the mind of 81-year-old Norma Geggie.

"She wondered what if 10 women from our village partnered with 10 of your women," recalls Rooney. "It all started as one individual deciding to do something. It's about hope in the face of loss."

Rooney is a founding member of the Wakefield Grannies. Today, North America is home to more than 150 granny groups holding fundraisers for the Gogos and their children. "It's very easy to be overwhelmed by the pathos of the challenges they face. To be 60 or 70 years old and parenting little children again," says Rooney, softly. "It's difficult. But they're not defeated."

The Wakefield women, together now for almost four years, send money and support to Africa. They ship warm clothes for the kids. They help the teens go to camp, where they develop their own AIDS training activities. But the people of Alexandra Township aren't the only ones gaining.

"We also benefit in our own lives, with our collegiality with each other. And our village is benefiting because we enrich the village with our activities," says Rooney. "Everybody wins when we take action."

Forty-five thousand people per square kilometre call Alexandra Township home. And the kids top the list. Rooney admits that there's so little hope for many of them.

"There was a day when we were filming at a school. You could see quite a few of the kids were HIV/AIDS positive. You could see the school was physically damaged. There were not many books around, and the kids carried their chairs in with them when they moved from one place to another," she says. "And it just hit me—what a huge struggle it was for them. We owe those kids an opportunity."

The documentary, which premieres at the Oxford November 4 at 1pm, also spotlights clips from the Grandmother Gathering, a 2006 conference in Toronto backed by the Stephen Lewis Foundation. Rooney says it was one of the most magical things for her.

"One of the main images that isn't even in our film from the conference stays in my mind. We would come out of our meeting rooms and boil out into the halls. And the energy level and the tears and the laughter would just be so intense. Then we'd grab a coffee and off to the next workshop. There was just this incredible energy."

Filming has long finished, but the grannies keep going—they grouped together 1,000 women on Grandparents Day (September 8) and marched on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. "What you do matters. And it doesn't matter what you do, as long as you do something," says Rooney. "One day a generation of white-haired women is going to take over the world!"

The Great Granny Revolution, Sunday, November 4 at Oxford Theatre, 6408 Quinpool, 1pm, $10.

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