Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
As is the case in most developing countries, many people in South Africa migrate from rural areas to cities or mining towns where there is higher level of economic activity to seek employment opportunities. However, the infrastructure and cost of living in the cities make it difficult for people to migrate with their families. Mostly, men leave their wives and children in the villages under the care of their parents (especially mothers who are hands-on in taking care of the homes) and would only visit them once a month or just send them money for up keep, which is usually not enough to last the whole month. Similarly, single mothers also leave their children behind to be taken care of by their mothers as they move to the cities to seek greener pastures. Reports from the National Planning Commission of South Africa (NPC, 2009) indicate a steady net increase of about 2 percent per annum of internal migration rate especially to Johannesburg and Cape Town with Limpopo recording the highest migration net loss of about 1.2 million people per annum. Although 93 percent of children between the age of 0-4 years in South Africa have both parents alive, only about 43 percent live in the same households as their parents and more than 39 percent (and 45 percent in rural areas) live in households headed by a grandparent or a great grandparent (UNICEF, 2007). Beyond caring for their grandchildren, Gogos are further burdened with the responsibility of managing households in the villages as a result of high death rates of young men and women in face of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. As of 2010, for instance, almost 56 percent of all orphans in South Africa lost their parents to HIV/AIDS-related illnesses (UNAIDS, 2010). The high rate of teenage pregnancies further aggravates the burden as both the babies and mothers are taken care of by the Gogos.
With such responsibilities, Gogos are physically, emotionally as well as financially strained and they end up suffering from stress-related diseases like hypertension which further add on their burdens. These diseases are accepted by the Gogos themselves and also people around them as related to old age symbolizing that they are drawing closer to their end days. Most people in rural areas do not understand these old age diseases and associate them with witchcraft and they end up discriminating the Gogos even more (and in severe cases stoning them and burning their houses) which aggravates the old age stress for the elderly people. Without proper structures to empower them to be independent and inspire them to take control of their lives, albeit in the simplest ways, Gogos become vulnerable and lack the capacity to take care of themselves, let alone the large number of grandchildren in their care. The Gogos’ physical weakness is further aggravated by the dormant culture in the villages especially for old people who do not normally exercise regularly. This is because they lack motivation, inspiration and also information and knowledge on how and why this is important for their health. The Gogos and other people in the villages do not understand how exercising is crucial in ensuring healthy lives and in putting lifestyle diseases at bay.
Although the Gogos have such an important and pivotal role to hold families together in the communities, they are regarded as less important and even a burden to society as they constantly need financial, emotional and healthcare support and they cannot do much for themselves. People and organizations fail to appreciate the value-add that elderly people bring to communities and the deep profound knowledge and experience of life they could pass on to young generations as a way of preserving the richness of tradition and culture. This transfers psychologically to them as they also end up feeling vulnerable and incapable of any meaningful contribution to their families and societies. Most organizations and societies that work with Gogos focus on giving aid to them in form of food parcels, clothes and other handouts without actually empowering them and inspiring them to have a purposeful life that they enjoy waking up to everyday. Other organizations that go beyond this mandate both within and outside South Africa (such as “Grandmothers against Poverty and AIDS” in Cape Town, Gogos groups in Malawi and “Grandmothers helping Grandmothers” in Botswana) focus on the economic empowerment of Gogos as an instrumental factor for them to take better care of orphans due to AIDS, but lack the emotional and physical aspects that support them simply for who they are and not for what they can do for their grandchildren. Furthermore, most of these projects are working with Gogos in townships of big cities like Khayelitsha, in Cape Town, and Alexandra and Soweto, in Johannesburg, failing to target Gogos in rural areas who are usually isolated and more vulnerable.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
It is very common in South Africa for people to migrate from rural areas to the cities to seek employment, leaving their families in the villages to be looked after by their mothers. This has left elderly women in the villages with significant responsibilities but without appropriate support structures to help them cope. As a result, they become physically, emotionally and even financially stressed. Beka developed a model of ensuring that elderly women in the villages are empowered to overcome physical and emotional challenges and are capable of living full lives and at the same time managing their responsibilities with ease. She realized that elderly women (Gogos in isiZulu) mostly suffer from diseases like hypertension, rheumatism and arthritis which are associated with old age, because of lack of physical fitness and regular exercises. This is why the model’s flagship program and entry point is sport. Beka recruits elderly women and organizes them into structured soccer teams according to the community where they come from and plans and manages tournaments, competitions and leagues to keep them motivated and interested to stay fit. Beka even has a national team which is called Vhakhegura Vhakhegura (which means “grannies” in Xitsonga, in reciprocal to the men’s national team, Bafana Bafana), which participates in international tournaments with other teams overseas. Beka chose soccer to challenge the Gogos and inspire them to have confidence and show the world that they can defy the odds and achieve beyond expectations. Through regular training and exercises, the Gogos are able to prevent and overcome lifestyle diseases that may otherwise have been fatal to them.
The model does not only revolve around soccer but also includes other programs to strategically stimulate the Gogos’ physical, emotional and financial abilities to overcome their challenges. The soccer teams also serve as clubs where each member contributes a minimal amount of money every month and the fund is used to lend out to those interested to start small income generating activities at their level. This helps them be financially capable to buy basic needs for the household and not rely 100 percent on remittances from their children working in the cities. The clubs also manage burial schemes from the funds to cover part of the funeral expenses for the Gogos and members of their families which is one of the things that stress people in the villages most. Further, the Gogos offer each other emotional support by providing counseling when members go through personal problems. Through this network, the Gogos are physically and emotionally empowered and no longer feel vulnerable and neglected but rather in control of their own lives and able to make positive contributions to their families beyond being mere child minders for the grandchildren. The model is specifically designed to create an all-round self-sustaining support system for a neglected and less exposed population (with little access to information and opportunities on health and wellness) to ensure that they improve their lives and that their role in the society is recognized within and beyond their communities. Beka’s ultimate objective is to change people’s perception of elderly people in the villages, create wide recognition of their capabilities and contributions and at the same time demystify the “myths” that normally surround elderly rural people and the strange diseases that come with old age.
Vhakhegura manages about 40 soccer teams for elderly women (and consequently the same number of social clubs) directly engaging more than 1,000 Gogos in Limpopo province. Beka is in the process of extending the model to benefit elderly men through another arm of Vhakhegura called Bakhalabzi. She currently has recruited more than 80 elderly men from different communities in Limpopo, organized into 4 soccer teams and is engaging with them through a similar model to develop a holistic all-round model of empowering elderly people in rural areas. Now, Beka has plans to engage with the South African Football Association (SAFA) to scale out to other provinces in South Africa.