Grandmothers’ Testimonies

Mariam Mulindwa

Jinja District, Uganda

I am a leader in my community, and I am known as a strong and energetic woman. And I am! I admit that I do not like to talk about myself. When I meet with other grandmothers and they ask me about my hardships, my story, I tell them “Yours is mine…Yours is mine.” I carry the same grief and burden as my peers, but I feel good when I do my voluntary work.

But I cannot deny that there is much sadness. I am sharing it with you today because I know it is important to speak about it. It is the story of my life that leads to my determination to be a leader in my community and bring strength and hope to other grandmothers.

Like so many others, my family has suffered so much because of HIV and AIDS. I lost my older sister, a teacher, who left behind six children—two of them twins who were not yet two years old. Before her death, my sister was ill for four years and bedridden for 18 months. Her in-laws chased her and the children out of her marital home. She returned home and my mother and I nursed her and gave her all the support that we could. But we did not understand HIV and AIDS, and there were no services or ARVs at that time. People were fearful even to talk about AIDS, and my family experienced stigma— especially from clan members. It was a painful time, and there was more to come. Last year, I lost another sister to AIDS. So now I have lost my two sisters, and they left behind a total of eight orphaned children. My older sister was the main breadwinner for our family. Our standard of living went down so much when we lost her.

I had to drop out of school because we were struggling to survive. We needed more security and support, and so I opted to get married at 19 years of age. I was fortunate because my husband was loving, but our home was like an orphanage—with so many orphaned children from my family and from his. They were so young, these children, and I had to work like a donkey to provide them with proper care—to feed them properly, and pay school fees for them. As they grow up, the challenges around school fees get deeper.

In spite of my efforts, I still could not afford the school fees. As a result, some of my girls became mothers at a very early age, which I regret. And so I became a young grandmother. This is not to say I hate being a grandmother, I just wanted better for both my children and my grandchildren.

And so I have 17 people in my house. My own children and all the orphans. Some of them have done so well. One niece whom I raised from a young age as my daughter, was so brilliant. She graduated from university with a B.A. in business and had a good job in Kampala; so much hope went with her. Last year, she too, got sick and passed away. I am before you today as a leader amongst the grandmothers, but I also carry the burden of grief that they do. I watch as my mother struggles with age and ill-treatment in a home where she is the first wife and cares for ten grandchildren, isolated and with high blood pressure. I care for my mother-in-law as she grows weaker with old age. I learned this way of caring for my family and community from my father and mother, and now I carry on the role I saw them play.

This community work led me to join PEFO in 2003, and I received support from them for the education of some of the children in my care—they gave as much as they could contribute to school fees, scholastic materials and lunch. There wasn’t enough to support all of the children, but it lifted some of the burden off of me. I was then able to take on more volunteer work, and I took trainings on HIV and AIDS, livelihood programmes, and on creating a culture of saving funds among grandmothers.

Every Wednesday, I meet with grandmothers like me and we share our challenges and achievements in life. We discover that each and every one of us has a unique story to tell—about how life was before we received PEFO support, and what it is like now. I have learned so much about how to counsel and mobilize other grandmothers—encouraging them to have hope and to feel supported. There is so much intensity and sadness, and the grandmothers are exhausted hearing what and what about AIDS.

We use music, dance, and drama to entertain them, but also to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS, good hygiene and sanitation. Theatre and plays work because they help the grandmothers express themselves in a different way—they laugh, have some fun, and feel like part of the group. It is a skill to reach out to grandmothers who are grieving and isolated and help them feel better, understand their rights, their healthcare entitlements and access government programmes.

I know that it is important to advocate with my fellow grandmothers to participate and give their views in local councils…and I encourage them not to hold back! I have even learned how to convince them to make out wills and I feel very good about this. In the beginning, they were fearful that making a will would bring on their death. Now they have changed their minds, and it is important, because it means their children will be safe to inherit.

I feel the rewards of these efforts when I see the challenges grandmothers have overcome. In 2011, I won the Ms. Granny East Uganda award for this work, and it is a powerful advocacy tool for grandmothers. We invited many people to the celebration of this award, and we used the opportunity to show what an important role we play in the community and get more respect for grandmothers.

This respect is important in the community, but also to give us a voice in places where decisions about our lives are made. Recently, the local government invited me to sit as a member of the Sub-County Land Rights Committee. We set up teams to investigate the cases that come before us, and sometimes we can settle them ourselves. If not, the magistrate comes in every two months from the high court and works with us to come to a decision. Since I have joined, all five of the cases we considered, mostly about land grabbing, were decided in favour of the grandmothers. It makes a huge difference to have a grandmother on this committee. Before I was there, grandmothers would often give up, sure that no one would listen to them because they were too old and didn’t have money for bribes. But now, grandmothers are more comfortable about raising their land issues with the Committee. They feel they’ll be safe and understood.

I know the work is not finished yet, and that there is more to be done. I also know that other grandmothers take strength and hope from coming together, and from seeing me in a role of leadership in the community. So I feel proud and happy to know that my people are being served.