Saturday, November 17, 2012


Grandmother Power: A Global Phenomenon
Paola Gianturco
PowerHouse Books

“Where are all the old people?”

That’s a question I’ve asked myself almost every time I return from foreign travel. I’ve usually enjoyed meeting dozens of local people, and it’s only later that I realize I’ve missed an entire segment of a population. 

I needn’t ask the question any more. Paola Gianturco has created a scrumptious book of glorious photos and stories of old women - grandmothers - who have found their power. Empathic, intelligent and delightfully curious, Gianturco guides readers through five continents and fifteen countries to meet grandmothers, mostly old, all of them activists. The grandmothers suffer from severe illnesses and a population depleted by deaths from AIDs or abandonment of husbands and fathers. Yet despite these endemic economic and social problems in the villages Gianturco invites us to visit, Grandmother Power is alive and well.

We readers discover, along with the author, that the women are not too old to learn about the importance of nutrition, especially for those who have HIV/AIDs. Then, challenged by the expense of maintaining healthy diets, some of them create cooperative farms where they learn even more skills and sell their produce. They find a variety of other ways to earn money, from knitting hats to producing CDs of lullabies. They encourage grandchildren and other young women to live up to the traditional values they believe are good for their culture and to change traditions that local women believe are harmful.

In Senegal, female genital mutilation is referred to as “cutting” or FGM. A1999 law forbidding it brought a significant reduction in the practice, but also shows the limits of social change by fiat. Almost a quarter of the women have been subjected to FGM, and most of those have been cut in secrecy. The grandmothers have learned about the dangers to women’s lives from FGM, and because they have status, their teaching sometimes has more of an impact than law.

Details of the grandmother’s work vary from village to village, country to country. A Guatemalan grandmother group’s major cause is stopping child abuse. The women promote good parenting, and combat the idea that “beating kids is normal.” Four hundred Israeli grandmothers monitor West Bank checkpoints, documenting Israeli Defense Forces’ procedures. Filipina grandmothers have given each other support as they came out of the closet of having been “comfort women.” 

Many grandmothers are ill themselves, yet manage these activities as well as raising several grandchildren and sometimes additional orphaned children. In emphasizing the importance of the groups Gianturco quotes an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, walk with others.”

A significant aspect of the grandmother’s work is in bringing formerly taboo topics out of the closet. The grandmothers grew up when people didn’t speak of rape or forced marriages or FGM or AIDs. Now, in new forms of traditional African forums, young and old women discuss these issues, and learn from each other how to cope with death, sickness, violence and poverty. They teach each other, own their power, and use it constructively. Gianturco offers readers inspiring visual and verbal portraits of women who have often been stigmatized and dismissed. I found Grandmother Power the next best thing to seeing for myself the remarkable accomplishments of these women, and the joy that they take in their work.