The room is quiet, armchairs are filled and gathered in a semicircle around the two guests of honour, a grandmother and granddaughter from Swaziland. Lamps are low, light from the gas fire flickers across the walls, and just outside the large picture windows, moonlight glints off the sides of the snow-capped mountains of Banff.
The silence is laced with expectation. The crowd, primarily made up of Canadian grandmothers, is waiting for the first of the two women, Gogo [grandmother] Nde, to begin speaking.
Here is what they know about her:
She is 56 years old and is taking care of 30 orphans in her community, seven of whom live with her. She is a beneficiary of and volunteer with SWAPOL (Swaziland Positive Living)—an African community-based organization that has been partnering with the Stephen Lewis Foundation for more than a decade. Gogo Nde started the first support group for grandmothers in her community and is an avid speaker and advocate for access to treatment. She also conducts home visits to terminally ill clients while working with SWAPOL’s mobile outreach team.
Here is what they do not yet know:
Countless children have passed through Gogo Nde’s doors over the years. She has lost some to illness, while others have grown to teenagers as she has watched with all the angst and heartache of a parent who weathers the phase of adolescent rebellion. She can only hope that she has loved these children well enough to carry them safely into adulthood. And yet the doors to her house and heart remain open to any child who needs a home, usually ones no one else will take. Like any grandmother, she always has photos on hand and does not need much encouragement to pull them out and start boasting about her grandchildren’s many accomplishments.
The children currently living in her house range in age from 18 to four. The two youngest —Sizwe (six) and Ncamiso (four)— are brothers with special needs and have recently come into her life. Sizwe has tuberculosis and Ncamiso was born with severe birth defects. Both require intensive daily care, at least for now. Gogo Nde is disabled herself and walks with two canes—her legs and knees were shattered in a car accident and never properly set. Despite this, she somehow managed to travel with Ncamiso by bus, 450 kilometres from Swaziland to South Africa, when he needed emergency surgery.
When she talks about Ncamiso, which she does often, it is always about what he has given her. She found him abandoned, covered in sores, and incontinent. She describes him as “the child of my heart.” Her brown eyes melt when she speaks of him. “This boy is so brilliant. He is four years old and just the other day he told me he wanted to grow up and be a doctor so he can help other children—just imagine!”
The next speaker at this evening in Banff, partway through the Caravan’s winding tour across Canada, is Thandeka Motsa. She is not one of Gogo Nde’s many grandchildren, but you wouldn’t know it, so deep is the affection between them.
Thandeka is only 19 but has carried an adult-sized burden for many years. At 12 she nursed her mother until she lost her to AIDS. Three days later, her father died in a tragic accident. She and her two brothers and sister moved in with their great-grandmother, and Thandeka became the mother to her siblings and nurse to her guardian, until her great-grandmother, too, passed away, at 99.
Thandeka dropped out of school to manage the load. She works as a hairdresser and is proud that she is putting her siblings through school. At this moment her overwhelming fear is that they may soon be homeless. Now that her great-grandmother is gone, their land and home is forfeited to other relatives who are trying to evict them.
Thandeka makes it through the telling tonight, but when she told her story a few nights ago in Edmonton, her voice had cracked and she began to cry, unable to go on. The booming voice of Gogo Nde filled the silence, as she threw back her head and started to sing. Thandeka waited quietly, allowing the song to wrap around her. The song over, Gogo Nde declared, “Now she can continue.” Then Thandeka finished her speech.
This morning as I write we are passing through the heart of the Rockies, mountains rising on every side. A fresh snowfall has blanketed every pine needle, and from time to time the sun breaks through and throws red morning light on the mountainside. All the while, Gogo Nde is singing, singing, singing. Occasionally, Thandeka, who is sleeping across several seats, lifts her head and sings a few lines. As the deep timbre of Gogo’s voice mixes with the delicate tones of Thandeka’s, I feel I am witnessing an alchemy of sorts, where suffering and heartache is transformed into courage and strength.
Listening to their song I move a bit closer to understanding the mystery of their resilience, the answer to a question that is asked of them time and time again—by Canadian grandmothers who come out to hear them speak, by media, by children when we stop at their schools—“How do you do it?”
They do it together.
They give each other the strength to stand, and one by one they have pulled those around them to their feet until there is a community standing together, turning the tide of HIV & AIDS.
Their song continues, as does the Caravan.
Look for more stories after the book is released on October 10, 2017.