In the last 20 years, photojournalist Paola Gianturco has documented women’s lives in 62 countries and created five philanthropic books that celebrate and advocate for women around the world. We met over a long lunch this winter, to discuss her work and many things grandmother-related. The topic of her most recent book, Grandmother Power, had struck a particular chord for me; in it she showcases 17 groups of Grandmother activists in 15 countries on 5 continents. Below you’ll find a transcript of an interview I did with her, as well as some of the Grandmother Power photographs that she generously agreed to share with the Cooking with Grandmothers readers. The interview shows images from the book in general; following, are photographs and descriptions that are specifically food-related.
You can learn more about Gianturco’s work on her website, discover how to show your own grandmother power through her extensive resource section, and go see the GRANDMOTHER POWER exhibit on display at the Dennos Museum Center, Traverse City, Michigan, from September 18 through December 31, 2016.
Jessica: What made you decide to focus your work on women’s culture and activism?
Paola: In 1995, the year of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, I began thinking about doing my first book. I had heard that women from the developing world were earning money to send their children to school, while the men in many of those countries were spending their earnings on themselves. I thought these women were heroic, and wanted to do a book specifically about them.
I’ve always felt women were improperly discounted. I grew up in the 60s and simply felt that men and women are equal and deserve equal opportunities. In reality women weren't, and still are not, granted those opportunities. I specifically wanted women’s voices to be heard. And while I had no idea at that time about being a photographer or author, I did know marketing, research, and how to ask questions. I had also earned one million frequent flyer miles from my previous work, and that allowed me to go anywhere for free, as well as stay in hotels that accepted the miles. My co-author Toby Tuttle and I traveled for a year and that became my first book, In Her Hands, Craftswomen Changing the World. My husband then gave me his 2 million frequent flyer miles to do more books. None of my books have fewer than 12 countries covered in them, and those miles are the reason I can do them and give the money I make to nonprofits working on the issues featured in the books.
Jessica: Your books are incredibly positive and uplifting. How you decide to show the positive aspects of women’s lives, rather than the struggles?
Paola: The positive stories are the least likely stories to be told. While journalism focuses on catastrophe, this simply didn't represent what i saw. Yes, there were terrible problems of poverty, disease, environmental issues, and so on, but what I was witnessing were women working effectively to solve those issues.
Jessica: What inspired you to work on Grandmother Power?
Paola: When I was working in Kenya on Women Who Light the Dark, I would ask the women I was interviewing “How many children do you have?” I had never heard the responses that I did then: “Two, and five adopted.” “Four, and sixteen adopted.” “Two, and four adopted.” Everyone spoke in the same way. They were raising their grandchildren, because their children had died of AIDS. It was then that I realized that the future of the continent rests with these grandmothers.
I began to wonder what other grandmothers in other places were doing. I discovered a whole international grandmothers activist movement that no one had ever reported about. They were working on diverse issues, with the only universal being that the grandmothers are seeing that the world is not good enough for their grandchildren. So, they work on the reason they see as the problem. In India it was getting light (electricity), so that midwives could better deliver babies at night, or their homes could have fridges for food security. In Thailand, it was working on contaminant issues from the gold mining industry, so that their children would stop getting sick and dying. In the USA, it was bringing attention to political issues that the Raging Grannies believed would be good (or bad) for their grandchildren's futures.
Jessica: Did you see a relationship between food and activism when you were working on Grandmother Power? And, were there big differences in women’s relationship to food procurement and preparation cross-culturally?
Paola: The main place I saw a very direct connection between grandmother activism and food was in Ireland. Darina Allen, of Ballymaloe Cookery School, worried about childhood obesity. She had the idea with Alice Waters to start an annual International Grandmothers Day, in conjunction with the Slow Food movement. Now there's a day in April every year when grandmothers plant, fish, forage, and cook with children, helping them to enjoy fresh, locally grown food.
In other places food was often key to survival. In Swaziland and South Africa, grandmothers were raising children orphaned from AIDS. The grandmothers were not working and were very poor, with 12-15 grandchildren in each household. The only way to meet this challenge of caring for and feeding them was to collaborate; in Swaziland, they started an after school program that fed the kids. At 1pm everyday 135 children show up for lunch and then stay afterwards, getting help with their homework. The grandmothers started a community garden to feed the kids. All over Africa it is the women who raise the food; it’s only when agriculture becomes a business that men take over. The women plant and harvest. The women run the markets. This is also true in Asia and Latin America.
Jessica: When you look back over the scope of your photography career, what have you learned about the unique strengths and challenges facing female elders around the world?
Paola: The challenges older women face varies by geography. The Stephen Lewis Foundation, in working with African grandmothers, unearthed an issue that people haven’t discussed widely, which is that grandmothers in Africa are the subject of domestic violence. They’re often reviled and seen as a burden. An extreme example of this is that in Northern Ghana and Mauritania older women are sent away to live alone in compound, separate from the village, with a young girl assigned to bring them food. Also, elsewhere, older women are often the undiscussed victims of violence. It’s one of the most serious problems facing them today.
In terms of strengths, older women are revered in many cultures for their wisdom. Particularly in indigenous cultures. They are seen as wise women, who are sources of decision making and knowledge about health. There are Native American tribes who wouldn’t go to war without discussing it with the grandmothers first. And, all over the developing world, it is the older women who know the indigenous medicinal plants.
Often that traditional knowledge needs to be augmented with contemporary medicine, and the older women are the ones helping to make that happen. In Senegal, a group of grandmothers has worked to stop Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), child marriage, and teen pregnancy, after learning of the medical complications their young women were facing from these practices. They convened intergenerational meetings about what is good practice and what is not and should be abandoned. In a three year period, the grandmothers influenced all 20 villages around Velingara to abandoned FGM. It was because they were revered and included everyone in the discussion that they were listened to.
Jessica: Are there other strengths that really stand out to you?
Paola: Storytelling. Grandmothers can be really wonderful storytellers. In the far reaches of India I was told to ask a certain 90-year-old to tell a story. Within minutes a good 200 hundred children were jammed in and around to listen. And, dancing. Everywhere, from Canada to the Philippines, grandmothers dance.
Jessica: What is one simple action or change we could all make to better support our female elders?
Paola: We could listen to them. If women and girls are discounted, older women are double discounted. Too often people are amazed that grandmothers are effective. Listen to them. Not just to their wisdom, but to their ideas and their stories. And, dance with them.
Below are some of the grandmother activist groups engaging in food-related activities.
More than 1 in 4 people in Swaziland has HIV-AIDs, the highest rate in the world. Grandmothers are heroically caring for their sick sons and daughters---and later raising their orphaned grandchildren.
Both tasks are overwhelmingly difficult given that most Swazis life far from medical centers and survive on less than $1.25 a day. Some 9,500 grandmothers belong to Swaziland for Positive Living. Groups of grandmothers collaborate to grow food in community gardens. They also raise money for school fees---in one village, by roasting and shelling peanuts, then making peanut butter to sell.
Swaziland may have the highest rate of AIDs, but South Africa has the largest number of infected people in the world: around 6 million.
Grandmothers Against Poverty and AIDs (GAPA for short) is a grandmother group located near Cape Town. Most GAPA grandmothers have little education and live on about $100 a month. The youngest is 27 and the oldest, 86. GAPA is run by and for grandmothers who provide psychological support, teach each other crafts so they can earn money, and offer after-school care for the children.
At 1:00PM when school is out, 135 hungry grandchildren run into the grandmothers’ clubhouse for lunch. The grandmothers have been cooking all morning. Their community garden includes plots of carrots, spinach, onions, and tomatoes. Their kitchen has industrial-sized cooking pots, big enough to serve many youngsters. Today, they made homemade buns filled with carrots, meat and potatoes. Yesterday, the menu was red meat, rice, corn and carrots.
Throughout Asia between 1942 and 1945, the Japanese military abducted one teenaged girl to provide sex to every 100 soldiers. There were 30 Comfort Stations in the Philippine Islands, and the women who were forced to work there kept their experience secret for almost 50 years, even from their own husbands and children.
The Lolas (grandmothers in Tagalog) are now in their 80’s and 90’s. They are still speaking at universities, conducting protests, sponsoring petitions, and demanding reparations, a formal apology and a place in the history books so their experience will not be repeated.
In 2008, almost 800 sympathetic Japanese citizens sent funds so the grandmothers could buy the bungalow that is now The Lola’s’ House: a shelter, counseling center, and meeting place for the Lola’s organization, Lila Pilipina.
They cook and eat together at their bungalow, make crafts to sell to support their advocacy activities, organize, and remember old times. One Lola told me, “When we did rallies in 1993, to sustain ourselves at a low cost, I remember cooking small fish in vinegar to take to our rallies. Also, salted red eggs mixed with tomatoes, eaten with rice.”
Darina Allen, Ireland’s best-known chef teaches her grandchildren to forage for seaweed, skin a rabbit and churn butter.
Darina, head of Slow Food Ireland, and her friend, American chef Alice Waters, worried about child obesity. Thanks in part to poverty and in part to the fact that many mothers now work outside the home, “Cooking skills have been lost,” Darina worried.
The two chefs founded International Grandmothers Day, which takes place annually in mid-April. They hope grandmothers around the world will celebrate by teaching their grandchildren to plant, forage, fish--- cook---and enjoy fresh, locally grown, home-made food.
On International Grandmothers’ Day in 2010, Darina’s grandchildren and their friends learned to cook scones and Rhubarb jam for a tea party in County Cork.
In Dublin, Monica Murphy and Meg Wood, plus seven of their granddaughters, cooked dinner. Everyone enjoyed: salad, quiche with ham, a sausage dish, and the grown-ups had coconut macaroon tarts for dessert. The girls had their choice of cupcakes and cookies, both decorated to the nines.
The Grandmother Project in the Velingara area of Senegal (about 10 hours south- east of Dakar) convinced people in 20 villages to change tradition.
The practice of cutting (which the UN calls Female Genital Mutilation) had long been championed and conducted by grandmothers. But when community health workers told the grandmothers that their daughters were dying from hemoraging during childbirth as a result of FGM, the grandmothers vowed to abandon the practice.
They gained support from Imams, headmen and school principals and convened intergenerational village meetings. There, they asked villagers to name “good traditions” that should be maintained (dancing, proverbs, storytelling, games) and “bad traditions” that should be abandoned. Over three years, all 20 villages surrounding Vellingara agreed to stop FBM, forced early marriage and teen pregnancy.
Today, grandmothers teach high school students to avoid teen pregnancy. When we visited one school, mothers were cooking lunch over open fires under a tree, preparing maize-and-onion porridge.
Should you feel moved by Paola's work, please consider buying her books or making a donation to the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign at the Stephen Lewis Foundation, whose work Paola generously supports through giving her author royalties from Grandmother Power.