I was driving to a tutoring session at Umpumelelo Primary School when I spotted something I never thought I’d see. To my right, there were gogos (the isiZulu word for grandmothers) that were playing football. I immediately came to a complete stop as I was frozen in amazement at their tenacity and downright skill of the game. Having forgotten about the session, I watched them and was reminded of my own grandmother. I’ve spent many moments with that magnificent woman. She is one of the most hardworking women I know, even at her age; she still wakes up at the crack of dawn to perform her duties. Then I envisioned her playing any type of sport and the idea is nearly comical. Within her community, Murang’a, in Kenya, there are not many, if any, projects that are designed with the granny in mind; especially not projects that emphasize on the importance of health by maintaining an active lifestyle.
However, such projects are available to grannies in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. The Hillcrest AIDS Centre Trust (HACT) has a Gogo project that supports 36 Gogo Support Groups operating across five communities: Molweni, KwaNyuswa, Embo, Ngcolosi and Inchanga. These support groups are run by the gogos themselves, with support from the HACT Gogo Group manager and three field officers, and serve as a platform of support gearing around issues of HIV/AIDS and other issues facing their respective communities. They have found comfort within one another as they share common responsibilities within their households and within the communities. The support groups also provide opportunities for self-sustainment and developmental skills. They are involved in counselling training, gardening, sewing, and craft making. All these projects have the granny as the main beneficiary.
In 2011, the first Gogolympics was held. It attracted media coverage of grand proportions as well as the interest of the surrounding communities. This year will be another brimming with excited eager gogos and enthusiastic supporters. The 4th annual Gogolympics will be held on the 14th of March from 8am till 3pm at the Kwa Nyuswa Sports Field.
Under the leadership of Sister Cwengi Myeni, the HACT Gogo Group Manager, the Gogo Support Groups as well as the Gogolympics are in good hands. Cwengi states that the Gogolympics event was not the first initiative within the Gogo support Groups, and initially workshops were held in order to encourage them to exercise. She states that, “These are old people. Some of them do work at home and do gardening, but we thought it was important for them because it’s important for health promotion.” She has come up with a way to involve the gogos physically in a fun and inclusive way. Through engaging in singing and the movements involved in the exercise, they end up working out without it feeling onerous.
Although this magnificent event is centered around physical activity, it also produces additional benefits. It brings together many people from within the community, as well as members of other communities. It makes them aware of the importance of Gogos as well as their own physical wellbeing. Cwengi says that, “the Gogolympics attracts a lot of people from the community and helps make people aware of the groups and what they are doing. The Gogos don’t get times like this, they leave their homes and go to the sports field to meet others and do things that make them happy – for me it means a lot. For them, they meet people from other areas that they haven’t seen for some time. It’s a way of socializing. It also raises their self-esteem – an old person playing; it makes them feel good, like “I can still do this”.
It also involves their grandchildren, as they are the ones who help them learn to do the exercises, bridging the gap between the young and the old.”
The event has not only attracted members from other communities outside the Valley of a Thousand Hills, but also the Department of Health and the Municipality, and the support of local and international donors. When Cwengi started the project, she wanted people to reach the stage where they were going to do things for themselves, in order for the project to be sustainable. One of the main challenges in the past has been that transportation costs have proven to be difficult for the gogos to cover, and these have been covered by HACT in the past. However, as HACT encourages independence in all their beneficiaries, the gogos have already begun saving to cover half of their transportation costs, the main event sponsors – Afrisun KZN Community Development Trust, and SRC Cultuurvakanties from The Netherlands - will cover the shortfall to ensure no gogo is excluded from participating.