- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2006

TORONTO — African grandmothers left AIDS activists and specialists close to tears here this week, relating their painful labors of love to raise grandchildren orphaned by war and disease.

Laurance Mukamurangwa, 48, of Rwanda, told Agence France-Presse on the sidelines of the world’s biggest AIDS conference to date how she cares for five grandchildren ages 3 months to 5 years, despite her affliction with HIV after she was raped.

“It’s really a problem for us, because we don’t have anything and must get food, clothes and school supplies. And you must remember that I am sick, too, and I will die,” Mrs. Mukamurangwa said. She said her own two children are alive but too ill to care for the youngsters. Her husband was killed in the Rwandan genocide in 1994 that left 800,000 people dead.

Because her grandchildren are so young, she said, “you cannot tell them anything about the disease. But, we tell them to love each other so that when the time comes and I can no longer be there, they will help each other.”

About 20 grandmothers in her village are looking after hundreds of orphaned children, she said.

At a rally before the 16th International AIDS Conference this week, 200 Canadian grandmothers joined 100 from Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe in asking for help to care for 13 million children in Africa orphaned by AIDS.

Up to 60 percent of these children live in 70,000 households headed by grandmothers, said members of the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, a solidarity group started in March by U.N. AIDS special envoy Stephen Lewis.

The grandmothers say they need money and training to stem the epidemic. “The skills we learned while raising our children did not prepare us for parenting grandchildren who are bereaved, impoverished, confused and extremely vulnerable,” the women said in a statement.

Retired nurse Joan Leitch, 73, said she and other Canadian grandmothers sold cookies, T-shirts and postcards designed by a local artist, and held charity auctions to raise funds.

Several of her daughter’s friends died of AIDS years ago, she said. “I knew them too.”

“I don’t think any of the grannies thought we’d be spending our retirement this way … but it’s been fantastic,” she said after an emotional talk with Mrs. Mukamurangwa.

“We don’t have all the answers, but maybe our efforts will help a bit,” she said. The African grandmothers “are so energized. I’ve fed off their energy.”

The African women shared their experiences, hardships and pain, and expressed “the sadness that descended on us late in our lives.”

Their Canadian counterparts pledged resources, influence and their relative abundance of time since retiring to demand that governments, religious leaders and the international community act now.

Canadian Kirsten Roy, 72, who was visiting Toronto, said she may join the campaign. “Far too many older people watch television all day. They wake up and have no purpose in life since retiring.

“I would like to still contribute and make a difference. We’re all human beings and we need to help each other,” she said before hugging fellow grandmother Emma Kasenda from Namibia.

Mrs. Kasenda says she was left to care alone for her six grandchildren ages 3 to 17 after her two children died of AIDS in 1998 and 2000, respectively.

As guest speakers talked about the disease ravaging Africa, she played with a Canadian child from the crowd with big blond curls and clear blue eyes.

American singer Alicia Keys chimed in: “I love my grandmother and I can’t imagine her trying to raise her own grandchildren at this time in her life. Thank you for singing out loud so people can hear you.

“The grandmothers are the silent victims of this epidemic. Now the silence has broken.”

The grandmothers had been singing and dancing for three days, their throats now raw and feet sore, but they refused to stop and their voices were heard several blocks away.

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