Pat Johnstone and Mary Lou Mahoney (left to right) are cycling 275 km in solidarity with women who are leading the fight against HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. Photo by David Gordon Koch/Campbell River Mirror

Island women cycling 275 km to fight AIDS in Africa

Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign aiming to raise $55,000

Women from across the Island are cycling from Campbell River to Victoria next week to raise funds for areas of sub-Saharan Africa afflicted by HIV/AIDS.

The campaigners – many of them grandmothers – are riding in solidarity with African grandmothers who care for millions of children orphaned by the disease.

“I know what it’s like to raise children, but we have so many more benefits here in this country,” said Mary Lou Mahoney, one of two cyclists from Campbell River participating in this year’s Grandmothers for Africa ride.

Mahoney struggled to raise her children as a single mother. Now she’s a grandmother of two.

A few years ago, she learned about the difficulties faced by women in Africa who carry the burden of childcare in nations hit hard by the virus.

“My struggles are nowhere near what the grandmothers [in Africa] go through,” she said.

It’s her third time taking part in the annual 275 km trek, which raises funds for the Stephen Lewis Foundation, a Toronto-based charity fighting to end HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Pat Johnstone, another rider, was looking for a cycling group after moving to Campbell River from London, Ont.

“I went to the meeting and found out it was a fundraising group for the Stephen Lewis Foundation,” she said. “It was a good group of ladies, so I thought: ‘I can do that, and next year I can join a bike group.’”

Johnstone is expecting her first grandchild any day now. And international solidarity between grandmothers is at the core of the campaign.

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But it’s open to “anybody who has empathy for the plight of these people,” said Vicki Simmons, a volunteer with the Campbell River group. 

The aim is to provide funds to community-based organizations in sub-Saharan Africa, where about two-thirds of HIV infections occur.

At the turn of the 21st century, more than one-third of adults were infected with the virus in countries such as Zimbabwe, Botswana and Swaziland.

By 2016, more than 19.4 million people were living in HIV in eastern and southern Africa, and another 6.1 million in western and central Africa.

The Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign is led from the grassroots by women in those regions, according to the Stephen Lewis Foundation. Launched in 2006, the effort is based on an anti-colonial vision of women’s rights and solidarity.

The objectives are holistic: the rebuilding of lives afflicted by trauma, to achieve an all-around state of well-being amid the pandemic.

So far, Canadians have raised more than $25 million that has gone towards food, education, medical care, and other essentials, leading to more hopeful, resilient communities, according to the foundation.

The Grandmothers to Grandmothers initiative has reportedly brought together some 10,000 volunteers in 300 chapters internationally. This year, the campaign received a prestigious award from the Geneva Forum for Health for its work empowering women in Africa.

Simmons said it’s the vision of a better world that motivates participants in the annual bike ride, which is now in its 12th year.  

“It gets to the heart of the world that we want for our children and grandchildren,” she said. “In a small way, things can get better. And gradually it becomes bigger.”

The bike ride, which takes place Sept. 7-9, involves 25 riders from communities including Campbell River, Nanaimo, Vancouver and Victoria, according to Laurie Wilson, who is a rider and one of the event’s volunteer organizers. All of the riders are 55 or older.

Along the way, they’re being supported by teams from seven communities, including Campbell River, Merville, Courtenay-Comox, Denman Island, Parksville, Nanaimo and Sidney. Another nine women are taking part in a 50 km trek on Sept. 9.

Altogether, they’re aiming to raise $55,000 this year in donations through the Victoria chapter of Grandmothers for Africa.

To donate online, visit www.victoriagrandmothersforafrica.ca or go to the Victoria Grandmothers for Africa page on Facebook.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that 35 riders from seven communities were taking part in the ride. In fact, groups from those seven communities are acting as support teams for the riders, who are from four communities. One of the seven communities providing a support team is Denman Island, not Duncan. There are expected to be 25 riders in the 275 km trek and nine in a shorter, 50 km trek. This article has been updated to reflect those changes.

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