American International Health Alliance Volunteer Memoir

February 27, 2009
By: Aliza Waxman

I was sent over from the USA by the American International Health Alliances HIV/AIDS Twinning Center as an Organizational Development Specialist. I have been volunteering at GAPA for the month of February working to strengthen the capacity of GAPA via the use of internal resources. Below is a copy of an email that I wrote to my family back in American during my first week with GAPA.

I started work on Monday at GAPA, Grandmothers Against AIDS and
Poverty. GAPA was started as an initiative to support grandmothers who have been affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. When I met the grannies, they introduced themselves to me by their individual Clan names, which is a more respectful way to address ones elders.

The organization is located in the J section of Khayelitcha, one of the
most famous townships in South Africa. Khayelitsha is unbelievable. It is filled with formal and informal settlements. The informal settlements are compact with small metal shacks that are shoved together in very dirty and densely packed areas. Many homes have no running water and most homes do not have toilets. Recently, the government set up port-potties in the informal areas, three-homes/ toilet. Up until recently, it was 10-homes/ toilet. There is an estimated one million people living here in dire conditions. There is trash scattered all over the place. I drove by a dump yesterday where a cow was munching on garbage. I could go on for hours about how the people of Khayelitsha are neglected, but I would rather speak about the beauty of the place. As I said in my last email, alot of the corruption, crime and danger that permeates through township life is the direct result of the breakdown of the community structure.

What is incredible about these grandmothers is the traditions that they are trying to uphold, to bring the broken youth back to life. These women are so strong, such powerhouses. If you could only hear their stories, you would be utterly amazed. These Gogo’s have been to hell and back but they pray to God throughout the day, with smiles on their faces, thanking him for the strength he has given them to survive and attempt to uphold a broken society. And I mean it when I say, these women are genuinely some of the happiest and most positive women I have ever met, they actually remind me of my grandmother. I heard a story of how a young man came to the grandmothers begging them for help and confessing to them all the crime he had committed and horrible things he had done, but that he was desperate and hungry, and the grannies were all crying and took him into their arms, even though they personally suffer as a direct result of the “tsosti’s”, thieves that live in this society.

Even though I am in a statistically dangerous place, I am so protected by these women, who know the streets and are so respected, no one will mess with them. They sing the most beautiful prayers every morning and cook us the most delicious local African lunch. They warn me that I will get very fat from their food as it is mostly comprised of white
carbohydrates, but I am so grateful for the good food, which is such an important part of their culture. This organization is so incredible. These women are so organized, driven, powerful and for one simple reason, the programs are entirely community driven. GAPA is driven by the grandmothers for the grandmothers, who are trying to create a truly sustainable livelihood for themselves. I am in love with the grannies and I refuse to see this organization lose funding.
The grandmothers started an after school care program for the vulnerable children in the community who have been orphaned by AIDS and have no one to look after them after school, where they have been the victims of many horrific forms of abuse. The grannies teach them traditional stories and music, strengthening the Xhosa culture, which advocates for peace, love, family, strength, standing together as a family and community, and caring for one another regardless. I learned a beautiful African phrase. “Inimba” it is XHOSA word which represents the love a parent must have for a child regardless of how sick they are, how troubled, disabled etc. This tradition has clearly upheld in
a society where people dedicate their lives to caring for their children who have been sick with aids.

These grannies have no husbands to support them. Many of them lost their husbands back in the homeland, in the eastern cape/ Transkei , when their husbands migrated to the cities in search for work, they never came back. They have been responsible to care for their children with no help or money. Many of these women lost their children to AIDS
and now care for their grandchildren that are dying of AIDS. They are entirely on their own and this organization was started so that these grannies could look after one another.

These women have shown me that strength can be sought out in any situation and I feel their strength emanating through me, it’s an incredible feeling. Their positive attitudes makes working with them so inspiring. I also have never had the experience of working with all women, it’s really amazing. The environment is so feminine, so strong. Yet not in
the modern feminist way. These women all cover their hair and where long skirts, but they are some of the strongest women I’ve ever met, both mentally and physically. They could bring anything to life, because they are filled with so much of it. I feel the presence of God amongst these women.

I am filled with so much love

Aliza Waxman

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