“I raised my hand. That was how it all got started,” Lois Mineau of Minneapolis explained. When she heard a speaker talk about women in Kenya struggling with poverty, her hand went up. She stepped up, saying that she wanted to sponsor one of the women, not knowing what that could mean.
Mineau talked with her friends, many of whom she knew through her involvement with of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. “Fifteen of them said they wanted to adopt a Kenyan ‘grandmother,’ too.” Six weeks later she called her friend, Mary Ellen Foster, to ask if she would be the board president of a newly forming organization.
What developed fairly quickly was an overlapping of circles of women in Minnesota and Kenya-who support each other in caring for the next generation. They call themselves “Grandmother Circles.” The intent of this new organization that crosses cultures and international boundaries is first to build relationships that support future generations, and secondarily, to give financial support to the Kenyan women.
Foster explained that in Kenya a whole generation of parents have been lost to the AIDS epidemic. In the U.S., there is a similar situation-a generation of parents that have been lost to drugs and incarceration, their children being raised by others.
In both countries there are cultural norms fencing women in, some obvious and some subtle. “In this country women are free in many ways,” Foster said, “but in many ways we are tied into our own cultural requirements. We are all learning what it means to stand against the cultural direction.”
In naming the organization, the word “grandmother” is used as an adjective. The American and Kenyan women may not be biological grandmothers, but they are doing the work of grandmothering-the nurturing of the children and relationships. They promote what they call an “economics of caring”-placing value on the role of caregiver.
In Kenya, the tribal custom is for widows to be inherited by the husband’s family. Often that existing family would not take in the additional orphans the widows were caring for. Women began to rebel against being inherited, choosing to be independent. As a result, they were cast out from the village. The women banded together to support each other in raising the children.
The original Kenyan Grandmother Group was made up of 10 women-Martina, Ada, Teresa, Ledtina, Elizabeth, Petronala, Cyprina, Mary, Lucy and Dorina-and 52 children; Martina had the most with 12 children. The children were the grandmothers’ biological relatives and others in the village. They were orphaned by AIDS and had no one else to care for them.
A nongovernmental organization was formed in Kenya to include the many circles of women caring for children. To be included, each woman had to take in one or two children. Monthly the Kenyan grandmothers contribute money that the group decides how to use, either for the group as a whole or special individual needs. Some of the contributions have expanded into micro loans, turning money back to their own members with interest. At the end of the year they can divide up the interest earned or invest it again.
More than financial riches are traded between the Grandmother Circles in Kenya and Minnesota. “They have a sense of the spirit. They understand healing and connection with one another,” Foster said. “There is a richness we can get from them. We are not a do-gooder group. We are be-withers.”