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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

South African Grandmothers Fighting the Ravages of AIDS Pandemic to Visit ODU

As an HIV/AIDS pandemic ravages lives in South Africa, a group of women - now tasked with becoming parents to their orphaned grandchildren - has organized to hold their communities together in the face of an enormous care deficit. Their stories will be told in their own words in October, when five South African visitors bring "The Nevergiveups" photo exhibition and book launch to Old Dominion University.

Researchers estimate hundreds of thousands of elderly South African women share similar challenges in the country where 5.6 million people suffer from HIV/AIDS - more than anywhere else in the world. About 10 percent of the general population, and 29 percent of pregnant women attending government-run prenatal clinics, are HIV-positive.

The Nevergiveups is a group of grandmothers within the Grandmothers Against Poverty and AIDS (GAPA) organization who live in Khayelitsha township, outside Cape Town. They provide economic, emotional and other support to women in their community who are faced with nursing sick children and raising grandchildren orphaned by the AIDS pandemic, while running an after-school education and nutrition program for 200 children who otherwise would be left unattended.

"My GAPA sisters counsel me and comfort me. If It wasn't for them, I would be dead by now," GAPA member Alicia Mdaka says. "We are a big family of grannies supporting each other, taking away the stress, even teaching each other to laugh again."

Several videos of the GAPA grandmothers discussing their experiences working on the project can be viewed on YouTube.

ODU's relationship with GAPA goes back several years and stems from a service-learning study abroad course taught by Jennifer Fish, an associate professor and chair of the women's studies department, who has conducted research in Sub-Saharan Africa since 1995. Since 2007, 50 ODU students have worked with GAPA through the program.

That relationship was further strengthened by Kathy Williamson, an ODU employee relations manager with a lifelong desire to work directly with social development programs in Sub-Saharan Africa. Through a chance meeting in 2010, Fish introduced Williamson to the possibility of working with GAPA via the service-learning course, and a year later the human resources administrator traveled to South Africa - on a trip financed through ODU's "Dream Fund" - where she partnered with GAPA to provide organizational guidance. To read more about Williamson's trip, visit the ODU website.

Based on ODU student fundraising and research, the first exhibition of "The Nevergiveups" took place in Cape Town in 2011. Now, it comes to ODU for one of only two U.S. stops on an international tour that will also feature a debut collection of images shot by photojournalist Eric Miller, who documented former South African President Nelson Mandela and 11 Nobel Prize winners over the past 25 years.

Through the generous support of the Friends of Women's Studies and the launch of the Connie Sage Women's Writers Endowment, the ODU women's studies department will host three members of the GAPA organization, including its executive director, Vivienne Budaza, along with South African journalists Jo-Anne Smetherham and Eric Miller for a three-week speaking tour in Washington, D.C., and Norfolk. The upcoming GAPA visit coincides with the release of "The Nevergiveups" book, which was written in partnership by Smetherham, Miller and Fish.

The six biographies contained in "The Nevergiveups" are accompanied by portraits and handwritten memories of 17 additional GAPA grandmothers. The content of the book captures the central themes of research conducted by Fish; Bette Dickerson, a professor of sociology at American University; and their students during the past six years of service-learning projects with the GAPA community organization in Cape Town. The publication of the book was made possible through the U.S. Ambassador's HIV/AIDS Community Grant.

"The book is being printed in Cape Town right now," Fish said. "It's been a seven- to eight-year dream."

While in Norfolk, Budaza, Miller and Smetherham will participate in a number of campus activities along with GAPA members Felicia Mfamana and Thelma Nkone. Events that are open to the public include:

  • Oct. 3-11: Nelson Mandela photo exhibition at Borjo Coffee House, on Monarch Way.
  • Oct. 7-11: "The Nevergiveups" photo exhibition, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the Goode Theatre lobby. Students and staff will provide guided tours of the collection.
  • Oct. 4: "Global and Local Community Responses to HIV/AIDS" panel discussion at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens, 2-4 p.m. The panel will include representatives from the federal government, Eastern Virginia Medical School, the military and community AIDS organizations, along with Budaza and Smetherham.
  • Oct. 9: "The Nevergiveups" exhibition reception will be held in the Goode Theatre lobby from 4-6 p.m. At 7:30 p.m., Miller and Smetherham will discuss the book in Chandler Recital Hall of the Diehn Center for the Performing Arts.
  • Oct. 10: "Working Beside Nelson Mandela" discussion, 3-4 p.m. Laurine Platzky will join Eric Miller to talk about her experiences working with Mandela in the first post-apartheid democratic government and organizing the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament in Cape Town. This event will be held in the Learning Commons at Perry Library.

During the ODU exhibitions, individual photographs of 17 GAPA grandmothers and portraits of their families will be available for purchase, along with Eric Miller's images of Mandela. A portion of the proceeds will benefit GAPA.

For more information about The Nevergiveups photo/speaking tour or to discuss possible speaking engagements at civic organizations, contact project coordinator Stacey Parks at WMST@odu.edu​​​​​​​​​​ or ​​​​​​​​​​757-683-3823. To learn more about the group, visit "The Nevergiveups" website.

The Nevergiveups speaking tour and photo exhibition is being presented as part of ODU's 36th annual Literary Festival. For more about the festival, see the "Migrations: Words in Motion" website.

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