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Vital Signs

To grandmother's house we go, on film

This Tanzanian grandmother and grandson are among those in a documentary produced by a DMS faculty member.

By Rebecca E. Glover

There is something to be said for being in the right place at the right time. It was serendipity that Dr. Richard Waddell met a woman named Jann Mitchell over breakfast at a hotel in Tanzania. As a result of that meeting, he became the executive producer of an award-winning documentary.

Shown: Grandmother to Grandmother: New York to Tanzania premiered at Dartmouth in April and has since been shown all over the U.S., including at the Global Health Council's annual meeting in Washington, D.C. It also won a CINE Golden Eagle Award and has been accepted to the United Nations Association Film Festival.

Waddell, director of HIV research and a member of the faculty at DMS, was in that hotel in Tanzania because he helps coordinate the DarDar Health Project. Started in 2000 as a study of tuberculosis (TB) in Tanzanians with HIV, the project has snowballed to include free adult and pediatric clinics in Dar es Sa-laam, the country's capital; an elective for DMS students; and a prestigious fellowship for Tanzanians underwritten by the National Institutes of Health's Fogarty International Center. And, thanks to a collaboration with Dartmouth's Dickey Center for International Understanding, undergraduates can travel to Tanzania for various DarDar related internships.

Tanzania: Jann Mitchell was in Tanzania because her husband, a Swedish physician, was running clinical trials there and she was visiting a school she had helped to found.

The Bibi Jann School-bibi means "grandmother" in Swahili -was built for children who'd lost their parents to HIV/AIDS and so were being raised by their grandmothers. When Mitchell took Waddell to visit the school, he was "just completely blown away," he remembers. Having recently met Anne Macksoud and John Ankele of Old Dog Documentaries, Waddell immediately thought "Oh! This is a perfect film!" Mitchell agreed.

New York to Africa

Watch a trailer for the award-winning documentary.
View video

Care: In the six months that it took to raise the funds to make the documentary, DMS opened a pediatric clinic in Dar es Salaam for children infected with HIV. As a part of DarDar's outreach program, Waddell and his team decided to offer free care to children infected with HIV at the Bibi Jann School and its affiliated orphanage.

The documentary, which exposes the difficulties grandmothers face raising their grandchildren-not just in Tanzania but also in the U.S.-is divided into three parts. The first part profiles 25 grandmothers and their grandchildren connected with the Bibi Jann School. The second part focuses on an apartment building in the Bronx designed specifically for grandparents who are also raising their grandchildren. Some of these children have lost their parents to AIDS, but most to drugs, alcohol, gang violence, or prison. In the film's final part, two sets of grandparents and grandchildren from the Bronx travel to Bibi Jann to meet their counterparts and exchange stories of hardship and success.

The Tanzanian program includes support for the grandmothers. They are given help with food and housing and are taught how to create and market African wares, such as mats and batiks, with the goal of becoming financially self-sufficient. Meanwhile, the children receive free education and child care at the Bibi Jann School.

Pupils: The school has about 90 pupils, 30 of whom are orphans. One grandmother says she now "can walk like a grandmother," with pride and dignity, thanks to the food and education she and her grandchildren receive from the program.

In the Bronx, residents of the grandparent apartment building are able to escape the rats, drugs, and violence they'd otherwise have to face in low-income Bronx housing. The affordable apartment complex offers after-school homework programs and exercise classes, grandmother discussion groups, good security, and-something that none of the occupants seem to take for granted-a functional, clean elevator. Above all, the complex allows grandmothers to avoid putting their grandchildren in "the system," their phrase for foster care.

The school has about 90 pupils, 30 of whom are AIDS orphans.

Footage: When the two groups come together in Tanzania, the documentary captures some candid footage: Tanzanian women laughing at the Americans because they can't weave African mats; American and Tanzanian children playing together despite the language barrier; and both groups in their finest clothing at a dinner at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Dar es Salaam.

The filmmakers and Waddell had planned to bring some of the Tanzanian grandmothers and grandchildren to New York, but they decided that "didn't make sense," that any remaining funds could be put to better use by the Tanzanian program.

In the end, Waddell hopes the film will "raise interest [in] and facilitate replication of these grandmother programs, both throughout this country and in other countries as well."


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