This is the last of a four part series written for the Vernon Morning Star newspaper during a trip to Sabie in Jan – Feb, 2008.
Grannies “Gogo” to Africa (Part 4 of 4)
by Susan Fenner
Sarah Lekhuleni strains close, squinting at the hand stitched appliqué on the banner she’s sewing. I offer her my generic reading glasses to see if they will help. She happily stitches for another two hours while I join the flower “gogos” (grandmothers) outside. Today we’re beautifying the entrance with flowers donated by local friends.
Three weeks has come to an end in Sabie, South Africa where Beverley Barling and I have been immersed with the elderly women being supported, financially and through letter writing, by Grannies à Gogo: the Vernon – South Africa Connection. One of the most fulfilling aspects has been to get to know a number of them personally.
I’ve learned that Beauty Manzini, despite burying two of her adult children and raising three grandchildren, finds time to counsel young mothers who need help because of abuse, rape, or neglect. That Lizah Ndlovu, despite her age, is a lively spirit who breaks out into African dance moves when excited. In the first of a monthly walk-for-health organized for them last week, Lizah finished first. That Emily Nonyana, one of the very vulnerable gogos, sought help from our Sabie coordinator Ginny Uren-Viner, who encouraged her to start a home based business. She’s now running a nursery for 30 infants in her small home. And as a result of our current visit, Grannies à Gogo will now donate 25 kg of food per month for these babies.
Ginny, and Ruth Magagula as her right hand, have been instrumental in revitalizing hope and enthusiasm in the elderly in this impoverished township. For a year she struggled through bureaucratic red tape for a hall which had lain empty and neglected for years. Now the ‘Ubuntu (we the people) Centre’ hums with daily activity.
For the first two weeks of our visit Beverley taught sewing skills to over 40 gogos who went at it like there was no tomorrow. In truth, they often do fear there will be no tomorrow because they’ve seen a number of outside initiatives start with fervour, then falter and fade. Beverley assured them, “It will go on! Slow down and do your best.” They respond by settling into it, their concentration increases, and they begin to produce some beautiful work – cushions, aprons, shopping bags, oven mitts, skirts, church banners and knitted slippers.
On my last day the aroma of home permeates the Centre – in the tiny kitchen the baking group is producing bread for tea time. A few “mkhulus” (grandfathers) confer with the Anglican Church minister who is going to hone their carpentry skills by making storage cupboards for the Centre. Two gogos work at a loom from which dangle dozens of coloured spools as they weave straw mats. Through the large windows I’ve noticed throughout the past three weeks a few women hacking at the turf with hoes. Now there’s a new garden planted with tiny vegetable seedlings. Yesterday a Traffic Safety Officer came to speak and 80 attended. In fact, the energy of this Centre is a magnet. Ruth tells me she now has 150 elderly registered with her as part of the project.
Ruth and I discuss our revised goals for 2008. In our beginnings last year, Grannies à Gogo wanted equal distribution for their funds – all the gogos got new shoes, all got an umbrella in the rainy season, all were eligible for transportation to town once a month to shop for food. However, it’s evident now that there’s a wide disparity of living standards. For example, some live in concrete block homes with water and electricity, while others live in board shacks without utilities. So Ruth is now tasked with identifying the most vulnerable gogos who are raising grandchildren, and addressing their most pressing needs, whether it be food, medical attention or a decent mattress to sleep on.
It’s time to wrap up and Sarah Lekhuleni returns my borrowed glasses. I tell her to keep them, and she clutches them to her chest with a gap-toothed grin and bobs her thanks. Good byes and thank-you’s take the form of resounding hymns – their fervent beliefs sustain them in their adversity. The lush and complicated harmonies, to my ear, rival the Soweto Choir. Once again, as I leave my former home of Sabie, I’m in awe of the oxymoron that is Africa: the richness of talent and promise flowing from the most disadvantaged in the humblest of surroundings.