Difference Maker

Janet Siddall helps African families through 'Grandmothers to Grandmothers.'

Ex-ambassador Janet Siddall works with those caring for those affected by HIV/AIDS through the 'Grandmothers to Grandmothers' project

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    Canada’s former ambassador to Tanzania, Janet Siddall, saw firsthand the suffering of AIDS victims there. Now retired, this grandmother of four has become a passionate organizer with the Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign, in which grandmothers in the West help African grandmothers cope.
    Sian Griffiths
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When Janet Siddall first visited Africa in the 1980s, she was bowled over.

"I was absolutely captivated by the landscape, the African people, the vibrancy of it all," recalls Ms. Siddall, who accompanied her then-husband, a Canadian diplomat, on his first posting.

After they split, she embarked on a career in Canada's foreign service that took her all over Asia. But Africa remained in her heart. When she became eligible for a job as high commissioner (ambassador), she set her sights on that continent – and ended up in Tanzania.

She was struck by the resilience of people in "villages that time forgot" – like the women of Nganjoni in northern Tanzania, who had to walk more than six miles to reach the nearest health services.

Although they were extremely poor, the women managed to raise enough money to buy a plot of land – but not enough to build a much-needed clinic on it.

Siddall visited the village after a local nongovernmental organization drew her attention to the women's plight. She was so impressed that she authorized funds on behalf of Canada's High Commission to help them realize their dream. The clinic opened in March 2010.

It's this kind of firsthand knowledge that Siddall has brought to her work with Grandmothers to Grandmothers (G2G).

"She brings the human side of what's happening in sub-Saharan Africa to our little group," says Nancy Martin, chair of the Peterborough, Ontario, chapter of G2G. "We're very lucky to have her!"

When Janet retired two years ago, she moved to Peterborough to support her daughter and four young grandchildren – and to be closer to her elderly mother.

Maintaining a link with Africa was also important to her, and G2G seemed the perfect fit. An initiative of the Stephen Lewis Foundation (SLF), a large Canadian NGO, grandmother groups began to form in 2006. They raise funds to support grandmothers in sub-Saharan Africa struggling with the effects of AIDS on their families.

Having lost their children to the disease, many African grandmothers must raise their grandchildren. According to UNAIDS, a United Nations program devoted to prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS victims, about 15 million AIDS orphans now live in sub-Saharan Africa – nearly twice the population of New York City. The cause spoke to Siddall.

"[They] have exactly the same aspirations as we Canadian grandmothers," but with just a fraction of the resources, she says. The African grandmothers must start parenting all over again – as well as care for themselves. They assume responsibility for feeding, housing, and schooling their grandchildren.

Their plight has struck a chord with Canadian grandmothers. In just five years, 240 chapters of G2G have sprung up across the country and raised $12 million (Canadian; US$12.4 million) to help.

Siddall's branch of G2G thrives on the generosity and pluck of its members. It has no budget. Siddall has organized a potluck dinner that raised $2,500 (Canadian). She also headed up a local "Stride to Turn the Tide" walk that raised $6,000.

This group of retired teachers, community workers, nurses, and a former ambassador isn't likely to be found sitting by the fire reading a book, says Ms. Martin. "We're from the '60s generation. We don't take anything lying down," she says of her group's determination to support Africa's AIDS-ravaged families.

Gillian Sanderman, a G2G member in Peterborough who advocates a stronger role for the Canadian government in the AIDS crisis, says that the analytical skills and passion for Africa that Siddall brings after such a long career as a diplomat are great assets to the work of the group.

Siddall is a compelling speaker when she encourages local audiences – such as college students or church groups – to identify with their "African sisters" in places like Swaziland, where an estimated 1 in 4 adults is infected with HIV, the highest rate of infection in the world.

Swaziland for Positive Living, a G2G-funded group, assists hundreds of African grandmothers. In remote areas, home care is essential to support the women and their young charges.

Parent organization SLF rigorously vets grass-roots projects in Africa before they are funded, Siddall says. SLF also guarantees that no more than 10 percent of the funds G2G raises are spent on administration costs.

During the fall of 2010, G2G members were delighted to meet with a handful of grandmothers from G2G-supported grass-roots projects in South Africa, Malawi, and Swaziland during an "AfriGrand Caravan" tour across Canada, made possible by donated frequent-flier miles.

The Canadians were moved to hear AIDS orphans, also on the tour, talk about their plans to become nurses or lawyers.

"We were energized by their energy!" says Siddall, who traveled to one of the stops on the tour.

G2G groups have now sprung up beyond Canada's borders, in Colorado and Guildford, England.

For more: grandmotherscampaign.org

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