For many people, the transition into
retirement presents an opportunity to start a new chapter in life. Free
from the rigors of an everyday job, retirees can start enjoying the
fruits of their lifelong labors — taking on new hobbies, maybe
traveling, and scratching items off their long overlooked personal
In Swaziland, however, things are a little different. For residents of the small, landlocked Southern African nation lucky enough to reach retirement age, the odds are that they’ll have to assume responsibility for raising the country’s next generation.
According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, nearly 40 percent of Swaziland’s population is HIV-positive, the world’s highest rate, and the nation has the world’s lowest life expectancy, at just 32 years. The nation stands at a critical moment in its history — the HIV/AIDS epidemic has all but wiped out the generation between grandparents and their grandchildren.
“Today the Hawk Takes One Chick,” a new documentary by Cambridge filmmaker Jane Gillooly that premiered for Boston audiences at a sold-out Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) screening last Saturday night, explores that critical moment, following the lives of three grandmothers — called “gogos” in Swaziland — as they deal with the fallout from HIV/AIDS in their rural community.
The film’s concept grew out of a casual conversation between Gillooly and friend/co-producer Tracey Kaplan, who was considering adopting a child from South Africa. The conversation spurred interest in AIDS orphans in Africa and the growing number of grandmothers who are raising grandchildren in the absence of deceased parents. Gillooly got in touch with a number of contacts engaged in this issue, including Pat Daoust, a fellow Bostonian who founded the “Gogo Project,” an initiative to support grandmothers in Swaziland.
Set against the backdrop of the beautiful landscape in Swaziland’s Lubombo region, the film begins with the agony of Gogo Maria Shongwe, a widow believed to be in her 80s — as Gillooly explained, few Swazi women had birth certificates — raising nine grandchildren by herself. Her life is consumed with finding food and medical support for the children. She is also in poor health, her legs swollen due to an untreated disease.
“My life is miserable,” Gogo Maria says in the film. “But they are my grandchildren. I have to give them food and education.”
The documentary’s title is a metaphor — gogos are the “hawks” that must take on the burden of caring for their grandchildren (“chicks”) in the absence of parents. In one arresting scene, one of Gogo Maria’s grandsons tells her that he will die before she does, because it seems to him that grandparents don’t die.
“Part of the reason I wanted to do this film was to look at the situation of women in Africa,” said Kaplan, a native of South Africa, during a question-and-answer session following the film’s ICA premiere. “They are carrying the brunt of the world.”
Sobering statistics support Kaplan’s claim. While the number of orphans has steadily fallen in other regions over the past two decades, the number in Africa has increased by 50 percent since 1990. According to U.N. figures, at least 12 million children in Africa have lost one or both parents as a result of HIV/AIDS, accounting for 80 percent of all orphans in the developing world. And the U.N. sees the trend continuing, estimating that there will be 53 million orphans in Africa by 2010, some 30 percent of them — almost 16 million children — orphaned due to HIV/AIDS.
There are no clear statistics are how many grandmothers are caring for grandchildren in Africa, but the U.N. maintains that the major change in the family structure is having a significant effect on the social, economic and political fabric in Africa.
Gillooly said it was hard at first to convince people in the Swazi village she visited to participate in the film, but they came around eventually when they realized that the film could help shed light on their situation.
“It was a story that wasn’t being told,” said Gillooly, a professor at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. “We didn’t just want to do a film about what the problem was, but also what was being done about it.”
The documentary will debut for international audiences at the Festival of International Contemporary Cinema in Mexico City later this month, and Gillooly told the Banner on Tuesday she had just received word that Full Frame — based in Durham, N.C., and considered the premier documentary film festival in the U.S. — has accepted “Today the Hawk Takes One Chick” to screen there during this year’s festival in April.
Gillooly hopes her film’s increased exposure will draw attention to organizations, like the Gogo Project, working to address this problem worldwide. Working with its lead partner, the Boston Living Center, and its in-country partner, the Cabrini Mission Corps at St. Philip’s Mission in Swaziland, the initiative seeks to provide feasible and culturally appropriate ways to give basic necessities, as well as financial and medical support, to 80 gogos and their grandchildren.
“The gogos are extraordinary women, and we must support them in any way we can,” she said.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, will present several screenings of “Today the Hawk Takes One Chick” at its Remis Auditorium during the month of March. For dates, times and additional information, call the Remis box office at 617-369-3306 or visit www.mfa.org. To find out more about the Gogo Project and efforts to support Swazi grandmothers, visit www.gogoproject.org.