A Friend of Firelight Returns to the Field

Namwera granny and child Taking photographs during a visit with Firelight grantee partners five years earlier, Joop Rubens saw a grandmother hanging back from the group. The village was gathered together to talk with Firelight staff about the needs in the community and ways Firelight could help. As he approached, Joop noticed a girl shyly behind her. “They probably didn’t want to intervene in the discussion,” he explains.

The photo is one that conveys strength and dignity that words can’t imagine. It’s an image that Firelight uses often to show the grandmothers in Malawi and throughout sub-Saharan Africa who take care of grandchildren after the loss of their own children, frequently due to AIDS.

“That original photograph, to me, shows what this, what Firelight, is all about. You have grandchildren being taken care of by older people, who are stretched to the limit emotionally after losing their own grown children. Plus young children have so much energy, and there isn’t a lot of money. Still, it was so clear that this girl felt so safe there, behind her grandmother.”

Firelight shared the photo with one of our donors, the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF). EJAF had just begun their work in Africa and the photo was used in media about their collaboration with Firelight. EJAF has been a strong supporter of our work, allowing Firelight to fund community-based organizations in Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zambia.

Now, fast-forward five years, to 2011. Joop, a real “Friend of Firelight,” took time off work and personally raised $5,000 to pay for a two-week trip back to Malawi, to take hundreds more photographs of the work of Firelight’s grantee partners there.

Visiting this grandmother was one photo he determined to make happen. Immediately, he started asking about her. People knew her and recalled the visit years before. She lived 15 minutes or so outside the main town, but with limited gas in the tank, he needed to be sure the trip would be fruitful.

Not until the last day of the trip did he hear that she would be waiting to see him. She would not be working in the fields that day, although her granddaughter from the original photograph would not be present. She was in school. Joop questioned if the photo was worth it, “I almost didn’t go because it felt critical the girl was there. But I’m glad I did.”

He got on the back of a motorbike, as he’d done for two weeks to reach remote communities. “There were a number of people there. The white guy visiting was an event. She remembered me and as soon as I saw her, I immediately remembered her. Her face was just as I recalled, although I hadn’t looked at the photo in years. A year is so significant when I look at other people, yet this woman looked just the same.”

Grandmother and two children

They talked for about 15 minutes about the fact that the photo was used. “I asked if she knew Elton John, but she didn’t. I thought she might.” The grandmother spoke Chichewa while one of her daughters translated. She told him about the goats that Namwera AIDS Coordinating Committee (NACC), a Firelight grantee partner since 2004, had given her to help her family generate income. That goat became three in one short year, enabling her to return the gift to NACC with a goat for a similar family in need of sustainable income. The goats were still there and provided enough income for this grandmother to not only enroll her granddaughter in school, but to then move her to a better school. She wasn’t there because she was attending this new school, further away.

Firelight supports NACC’s livestock project that provides added income for families caring for orphans and vulnerable children. Through NACC and similar community-based organizations, an amount as small as $50 can purchase farm animals and provide business training to families. Almost all the money this family earns is spent on education. Joop’s photo five years later is a snapshot into the resiliency and fortitude of communities and families to care for their children.

Joop left everyone in the village laughing when he said ”I’ll see you in five years.” He explains, with pride, that the comment is relevant to the story, “My wife tells me my jokes aren’t so funny, but the Africans understand my sense of humor.”

We at Firelight appreciate so many things about Joop – his enthusiasm, his energy, the many beautiful images he has made of the work we support. Even his jokes.

Thank you, Joop, for all you’ve done and will continue to do for the well-being of children in Africa.