In the breathtakingly beautiful Valley of a Thousand Hills in KwaZulu-Natal lives a 76-year-old retired nurse, Cwengekile Myeni. In this region Myeni dedicated nearly 30 years of her life in service of others while working at the Halley Scott Clinic in Botha’s Hill.
A mere three months after her retirement, Myeni connected with a local non-profit organisation, the Hillcrest AIDS Centre Trust (HACT) to initiate a granny support programme to empower senior citizens in the area.
Today, more than ten years later, Myeni’s dream is a beautiful reality, where seniors citizens are involved in a number of activities and they operate 33 granny-led gardens. The gogos’ gardens feed more than 500 grandmas and 4 000 grandchildren in the area.
So why would a retired nurse decide to start an organisation in service of her community? Throughout her career, Myeni saw how the lives of grandmothers are affected by HIV/Aids. Many of the gogos, she says, “lose their children to the disease and become the only carers for their grandchildren”.
“I saw that there was nothing being done to help these women. They have a lot of unique challenges and issues not just as older women, but also because of the effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” says Myeni.
When the programme kicked off in 2006, it was set up solely to provide psycho-social support to grandmothers who were struggling to take care of their orphaned grandchildren. According to Claire Hodgkinson, HACT’s marketing and fundraising manager, it wasn’t long before the initiative branched into new methods of empowerment.
“It soon extended to finding ways to empower the grandmothers in all aspects of their lives for the benefit of them and the many orphaned grandchildren in their care,” Hodgkinson added.
Over the last thirteen years, the programme has promoted healthy living, encouraging healthier eating habits and physical exercise.Their 33 community-based vegetable gardens, run by the women involved in the programme, grow spinach, cabbage, carrots, onions, potatoes, beetroot and sweet potatoes. Hodgkinson says their produce feeds more than 500 grannies and 4 000 children monthly.
“I believe that when you empower a granny, you empower the whole community”. – Cwengekile Myeni
“Our grannies’ gardens have become so important, because we want to empower and uplift them, but we can’t do that on an empty stomach and if they have no way of feeding their families every day,” Myeni adds.
Through the granny programme, 68 gogo support groups now exist. One of the gogos is Thengiwe Khanyeza (63). She says the garden has helped her to feed her family. “I joined my group, which is called the “Nkulu Leko” group (which translates to “freedom”) over 3 years ago when one of my neighbours told me about it,” says Khanyeza.
Khanyeza is the main caregiver of four grandchildren and says “working in the gardens is hard work, but it is very rewarding and relaxing too. We talk and laugh a lot while we are working in our garden.”
Through the growth of the programme, Myeni and her team have seen how the initiative positively impacts the lives of the gogos. As a grandmother of 12 grandchildren herself, Myeni says, “I believe that when you empower a granny, you empower the whole community”.