City grannies are changing the world

Group continues to connect with African grandmothers in the fight against AIDS

The Royal City Gogos are living proof that grandmothers can make a difference.

Janine Reid, who founded the Royal City Gogos in April 2009, said the group has already sent $175,000 to the Stephen Lewis Foundation in support of community-based projects that work with African grandmothers and the children in their care.

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"These projects provide holistic support in everything from grief counselling to school fees and uniforms, seedlings and house construction to micro-credit loans and HIV education and testing," she said. "Grandmothers are the backbones of their communities and Africa could not survive without them."

Lewis, who served as Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa for the United Nations from 2001 until 2006, is chair of the board of the Stephen Lewis Foundation. The foundation, which works with community-based organizations to turn the tide of HIV/AIDS in Africa, has funded more than 700 initiatives and partnered with more than 300 community-based organizations in 15 countries since 2003.

The Stephen Lewis Foundation launched the Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign in 2006, which sees Canadian grandmothers supporting their peers in Africa. Gogo means grandmother in Swahili.

The Royal City Gogos are part of a regional network of 25 active groups in southwestern B.C. called the Greater Van Gogos. The Greater Van Gogos have challenged each other to raise as much money as possible through a penny drive.

"Across the region to date, we have raised about $16,000," Reid said. "Royal City's goal was to collect one million pennies, which is $10,000. We are on the trail."

As fast as they're collected, the pennies are banked and returned into circulation, with a goal of collecting them again and again until they go out of circulation.

"If people have pennies, we will come and get them," Reid said. "If they want to collect pennies, we will give them a jar."

In addition to the penny drive, the Royal City Gogos are preparing for their Artisan Crafts for Africa sale, which is taking place on Saturday, Nov. 3 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the CAW hall at 326 12th St. The sale features a variety of gift items, including baby blankets, aprons, handmade soaps, fascinators (decorative headpieces) and greeting cards.

Some members of the Royal City Gogos have made use of a donation of beautiful yarn and created shawls, shrugs, scarves and bags for the sale, and other members created one-of-a-kind bags from luxury textiles that were donated by interior designers.

The sale will also feature African ceramic jewelry that's been a hit at previous sales and helps employ women in a fair-trade workshop in Africa. Local Girl Guides are making AIDS ribbons, contributing baking and acting as personal shopping attendants at the sale.

Looking ahead to 2013, the Royal City Gogos are preparing for an art show that will get underway in New Westminster in the spring. Celebrating African Grandmothers, Heroes of the Continent will be the third in a series of traveling shows.

Reid notes that the previous show raised more than $200,000 for the Grandmothers Campaign. The art show will open in New Westminster in May 2013, tour Western Canada and return to the Vancouver area for a gala and auction on May 8, 2014 - International Women's Day.

A call for entries for the juried exhibit is open to all forms of art that can be hung on the wall.

"We anticipate a vibrant and inspired exhibition that celebrates the extraordinary resolve of African grandmothers and the talent and generosity within the arts community," said Reid, who is now the coordinator of the Greater Van Gogos.

The Royal City Gogos and the Greater Van Gogos have been involved in numerous initiatives recently, including a presentation by Lewis at the Columbia Theatre on Sept. 22.

"He spoke about women and AIDS and the fact there would be AIDS in Africa, as there is everywhere, but it would not be a pandemic unless there was pervasive violence against women," Reid said. "He really wanted to give us a context for the pandemic."

According to Reid, Lewis citied the appalling frequency of rape and gender-based violence as being key factors in the creation of the pandemic.

He told the crowd of more than 225 grandmothers that many women in Africa have little control over their personal security, health, finances and sexual autonomy.

No sooner had Lewis left town than the Royal City Gogos received a visit from internationally renowned photojournalist, Paola Gianturco, who has displayed her work in the United Nations, the Smithsonian and been featured on Oprah. Her fifth and most recent book: Grandmother Power a Global Phenomenon, features photos from Africa and other countries.

"She was magical," Reid said. "Women were so in awe of the stories she had to tell. She really brought that issue of grandmothers, how they are living longer, are better educated, having more disposable income."

According to Reid, each of Gianturco's books is a philanthropic endeavour, with the latest focusing on the movement of "grandmother activists" around the world, in places from the West Bank to Ireland to Africa. In addition to her Oct. 2 visit to the Royal City, which was co-hosted by the New Westminster Public Library, she spoke at five other public libraries in the Lower Mainland.

Gianturco is donating 100 per cent of her author royalties to the Stephen Lewis Foundation's Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign.

Black Bond Books at Royal City Centre has agreed to carry her book and to donate 10 per cent of its profits to the campaign as well.

Royal City Gogos currently has 44 members and always welcomes new members. The group meets at the New Westminster Public Library on the second Tuesday of each month from 1 to 3 p.m.

Royal City Gogos also welcome the opportunity to speak to local groups about their work.

For more information on the Royal City Gogos or to donate pennies to the penny drive, email royalcitygogos@gmail.com. www.twitter.com/TheresaMcManus

tmcmanus@royalcityrecord.com

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