Grandmother Power


A Global Phenomenon

Paola Gianturco is a legend. For the past 16 years, she has been working as a photojournalist, documenting the lives of women throughout 55 countries. She brings together inspiring stories and breathtaking photographs that motivate readers to engage with, learn from, and support women around the world. All her books are philanthropic projects where the royalties are carefully donated to particular nonprofit organizations.  In early June, we spoke with her about her new book, Grandmother Power, which reveals a new, international grandmother movement.

HAND/EYE: What do you wish to share with your readers about the “unheralded, international, activist grandmother movement”? What message do you hope this book communicates?

Paola Gianturco: I hope that readers will be inspired to join the grandmother movement; to start, join and network with grandmother groups in order to help make the world a better place for grandchildren everywhere.

It’s a wonderful opportunity. Never in the history of the world have grandmothers been so capable of causing change. They are still young, healthy, well educated and because many were students in the 1960s, they are of the “baby boomer” generation. Now they can change the world … because they already did!

H/E: What intrigues you most about the research you found while documenting 120 activist grandmothers in 15 countries on five continents?

PG: I was fascinated to be witnessing so much important work. Activist grandmothers are taking on intractable issues. Just a short list of their causes are female genital mutilation, HIV/AIDS, environmental degradation, illiteracy, child abuse, social justice, energy issues and cultural preservation.

H/E: You mention that today’s grandmothers worldwide are younger, healthier, better educated, and better off than grandmothers have ever been. Why do you think this is the case?

PG: They are younger because for centuries, people didn’t live much past age 30, which was not long enough to become a grandmother.

In the U.S. today, women are becoming first-time grandmothers at the average age of 50, which defies the myth that grandmothers are tottery and old. Worldwide, boomers are also becoming grandmothers and again, they are significantly better off than the general population. Plus there are LOTS of them. In 2010, there were 38 million grandmothers.

H/E: How did you first get involved in the field of international women’s issues and the documentation of women’s lives?

PG: My involvement came from the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. The report from the conference stated that poor women in the southern hemisphere were sending their children to school with the money that they themselves had earned—although men spent their own money on other things. That news surprised and intrigued me. I thought those women are heroines!

My first photographic book focused on women artisans, all living below the UN income poverty line, yet still being able to send their children to school by using their incomes from making and selling handicrafts.

Grandmother Power will be my fifth book about women all over the world. I’ve now documented their work and lives in 55 countries.

H/E: Throughout your travels what surprised you most while bringing attention to these grandmother activists?

PG: The resilience, optimism, and hope of the African grandmothers who are raising grandchildren who are AIDS orphans was the biggest surprise.

These grandmothers are poor, old, still grieving the deaths of their own children. They’re sometimes HIV positive themselves, and suddenly find themselves caring for 12 or 15 grandchildren. I expected that they would be profoundly depressed and overwhelmed.

Instead, those I interviewed in South Africa and Swaziland, who had banded into groups to share responsibilities, told me they felt strong. They had started community gardens to feed the children, and were coordinating after school care programs so that the youngsters were safe, supervised, had a place to play, had company, and help with their homework. The grandmothers taught each other how to live with HIV/AIDS, and how to make and sell handicrafts (knitting, sewing, crocheting, beading, etc.), which meant they had some financial resources for these important projects.

The grandmother groups in South Africa and Swaziland are grantees of the Stephen Lewis Foundation in Canada, whose Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign is supported by 245 grandmother groups that send small cash infusions when the African grandmothers ask … the right amount, for example, to buy seeds to start a community garden or the right amount to buy a swing set for a school playground

I was so impressed by the Stephen Lewis Foundation, as well as the Canadian and African grandmothers, that 100 percent of my author royalties from Grandmother Power will go to the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign.

H/E: In your book, you have highlighted a few memorable grandmothers who have helped preserve traditional artisan techniques throughout Peru, Laos, and Thailand. Do you mind speaking a bit more about these women and their accomplishments?

PG: In all three countries, talented weaving grandmothers are doing something grandmothers do well and that is to sustain cultural traditions. However, they face very different situations which I will detail below:

In Luang Prabang, Hmong grandmothers started the Night Market and they are still the divas of that operation. Rural Lao-Tai grandmothers, who are master weavers, are selected to work at Op Pop Tok (East Meets West), which sells their silk textiles in Singapore, Sebastopol, and Santa Fe. Both sets of grandmothers are sustaining their traditions in an environment that supports and welcomes their work.

Sustaining tradition was much harder for the grandmothers in Peru, as by the 1950s, traditional weaving patterns and practices had virtually been lost. Weavers were creating garish textiles for sale to tourists, using synthetic-dyed yarns. Few of the Peruvian Quechua people wore indigenous clothing at that time, because it signaled that they were poor and ill educated. By the 1960s, traditional weaving patterns and practices had virtually been lost.

Master weaver Nilda Callañaupa arranged for high school students to get academic credit for interviewing their grandmothers about their grandmothers’ weaving patterns and processes. Little by little, Nilda and the grandmothers collected enough information about the lost traditions so that they could teach others via the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco. Today, the Quechua people wear indigenous clothing as a symbol of ethnic pride.

Grandmother weavers who work with organic cotton in northeastern Thailand, and who inherited their mothers’ indigo fields, are fighting for their traditions and their neighbors’ lives.

Just over the mountain from the village of Kokkabok is a huge gold mine whose cyanide is leeching into the earth and killing the crops, poisoning the water, and making people sick. Kokkabok weavers have allocated some of their profits to help their neighbors and have lobbied officials in Bangkok to close the mine.

H/E: What was the “aha” moment in putting together this book?

PG: In 2006, I met grandmothers in Kenya who were raising AIDS orphans. They seemed so heroic, that I wondered what other grandmothers were doing around the world. I was amazed to find some 70 activist grandmother groups in 30 countries; there were so many that it was difficult to decide upon which ones to document.

H/E: Is there a particular story or memory when listening to these stories, that particularly stands out for you?

PG: The dancing grandmothers in the Philippines are enthusiastic, energetic performers.. I danced with the grandmothers in Manila, who had been forced to be sex slaves during World War II; even though they are now in their 70s and 80s, they play music and dance in order to relax in the afternoons.

I also danced with the village women who are part of The Grandmother Project in Senegal, Africa. They are putting an end to teen pregnancy, early marriage, and female genital mutilation. I visited many villages near Velingara, Senegal and in each one, the grandmothers welcomed me by singing, clapping, and dancing, and then they pulled me in to join them. They politely disregarded the fact that I didn’t know one traditional dance step … FUN!

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