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24 August 2005

Mai Mwera knows the tragedy of losing a son and two daughters to AIDS. Now this grandmother in Malawi finds herself raising a grandchild and two others orphaned by the deadly disease—a situation not uncommon in Africa.

“In Malawi there are one million orphans because of AIDS,” says Charlotte Day—a grandmother herself to 11 grandchildren. She started Gogo Grandmothers, a grassroots organization of grandmothers supporting other grandmothers caring for African orphans.

Charlotte and her husband Dick went to Malawi for a one-year sabbatical in 1990. Then God grabbed their hearts as they witnessed the unfolding HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. The Days decided to stay, and have promotedChrist-centered educational initiatives throughout the region to meet the pandemic. Dick became Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Chancellor College at the University of Malawi. Charlotte became a lecturer there as well, and later head of the Home Economics Department. (Pictured: Charlotte Day with two Gogos caring for orphaned grandchildren).

In much of Sub-Saharan Africa, the age group from 20-40 traditionally provides the only social security available to aging parents. “The most productive segment of society is dying out,” Charlotte says. “These young people are dying and leaving children for elderly grandparents to raise,” she says. “It’s very frustrating because many grandmothers in the rural villages are old, thin and weak and they have this extra burden.”

Charlotte introduced a program for early childhood development, care and education at Chancellor College. While she taught the concepts of child development to her students, she longed to see them implemented in the rural areas surrounding the city. “I wanted to take our students out to the villages to work with poor children,” she says.

Doing just this, her work in the village of Makungula gave rise to a preschool started under a large mango tree. The school now provides a rich source of early training and support for 70-90 children. “They usually don’t have breakfast at home,” Charlotte says. “Some kids walk three kilometers to get there—and they’re tired little people when they arrive,” she says. All the children receive an enriched porridge after they reach their destination.

Charlotte and her fellow teachers soon discovered what they had begun to suspect. “We realized many of these children were orphans being cared for by their grandmothers,” Charlotte says. She asked her teachers to survey six smaller villages surrounding the preschool and found 104 orphans being cared for by 39 grandmothers.

Feeling a sense of compassion for their predicament, she invited the grandmothers to come together as a group. “It was a social time. We read the Bible together and talked about issues important to their lives,” she notes. They began to meet regularly, discussing issues such as nutrition, child discipline and other matters relevant to women facing such a challenge. (Pictured: Gogos praying in rural village).

Then she organized a group of well-educated grandmothers from the city as a support group. “I challenged them to do something for these poor grandmothers in the village,” Charlotte says. They raised the funds to provide blankets before the cold season arrived, and they adopted an unusual name for themselves: the Gogo Grandmothers, taken from the Chi-Chewa word for grandmother—‘gogo.’

Charlotte has also started two Gogo groups at churches in the U.S. “Some women in my age group don’t have an awful lot to do,” Charlotte notes. “This gives them a sense of purpose.” A Gogo Grandmothers group meeting at Mariners Church in Newport Beach, California recently put together a care package for some of the orphans containing pencils, crayons, scissors, rulers, glue sticks, and pencil sharpeners.

“We don’t hand out money, but we will raise money for food,” Charlotte says. “There’s going to be a really bad drought and famine this year in Malawi,” she notes. “We’ll be distributing dried beans and peanuts, sugar, salt, soap and cooking oil in six villages.” She wants to gradually expand her supportive efforts to surrounding villages, and hopes to see more Gogo Grandmothers groups forming in other churches.

Charlotte recently lost her head preschool teacher to AIDS. “Gloria was a darling young woman who was training others throughout the country about early childhood development. She went to church and her mother is a wonderful Christian.”

On the last day of Gloria’s life, she asked her sister if she could go outside to see the sunshine one last time. Then she came back inside and sat down on the floor. She told her older sister she wanted to pray. “She put her head down to pray—and then immediately she went to be with the Lord,” Charlotte says. “She was the third child lost in her family due to the horrible AIDS pandemic.”

As the toll mounts throughout Africa, prayer becomes a primary weapon in the battles that lie ahead. “The main idea is to pray for the grandmothers, because many of them don’t know the Lord,” Charlotte says. “They need to know the Lord and they need His help in raising these children.”

By Mark Ellis
Senior Correspondent, ASSIST News Service

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