Interview with Paola Gianturco, Author
My name is Lucia and I am an Assistant Editor for Pencils for Africa. It is my honor and privilege to interview Paola Gianturco, who is the author of Grandmother Power A Global Phenomenon.
Kindly note that most of the wonderful photographs of Africa featured in this interview, were generously provided by Ms. Gianturco from her Grandmother Power website. Specifically: these photos were taken in the African countries that all begin with the letter ‘S’: South Africa, Swaziland and Senegal.
Ms. Gianturco has also traveled and documented the lives of women and girls in African countries that do not begin with ‘S’ such as Morocco, Cameroon, Kenya and Zimbabwe.
My questions to Ms. Gianturco are in CAPITAL LETTERS and are colored in Crocodile Green.
There are quite a lot of crocodiles in Africa so this color seemed appropriate for my interview.
HAS YOUR EARLY LIFE IMPACTED THE WRITING OF YOUR BOOKS ?
Absolutely—in many ways. Specifically:
1) My father was an immigrant from Italy. It was clear to me from the time I was a very young child that my life was intimately connected with people in other countries. All my cousins lived in Italy. So it seems natural, now, to write about people in other countries. They are part of the human family.
2) I grew up during World War II, a war fought about human rights: Hitler tried to eradicate the Jews. I grew up convinced that social justice was imperative. All my books are about social justice.
All my books are about people who make courageous, moral decisions to help make the world a better place.
African women sing and dance when they’re happy — and sing and dance to cheer themselves up when they’re sad. To be invited into that energy is inspiring, healing, and wonderful.
3) My father, a new US citizen, volunteered to serve in the US Army during World War II. Even though he was too old to be enlisted, he felt passionately that Hitler was horribly wrong in his treatment of the Jews. His Italian family never understood his view since Italy was allied with Hitler. All my books are about people who make courageous, moral decisions to help make the world a better place.
4) The Diary of Anne Frank inspired me to write a daily journal about my own experiences, feelings and reflections. That was my first experience writing anything except school assignments. Today, I am still writing …working on my sixth book.
5) My mother was educated as an English teacher. She loved words and taught us to love them, too. My brother and I have both written books.
6) During the years that my father was away in World War II, my mother was the head of our family. She taught me that women are capable and powerful. All my books are about women who are capable and powerful. However, there are many places in the world where women are discounted. I hope my work will help change that attitude.
My father put a camera in my hands when I was eight and taught me how to take pictures. All of my books are photographic books.
7) My father put a camera in my hands when I was eight and taught me how to take pictures. All of my books are photographic books. Yet – when the first one was published, I had never taken a formal photography class!
8) My father was a doctor who, with his physician friends, started a hospital and clinic. My friends growing up were those doctors’ children. It was clear to all of us that “the good life” was a life spent helping others. All of my books are philanthropic projects—my author royalties go to organizations working effectively on the issues the books describe.
WHEN YOU WERE MY AGE, DID YOU DREAM ABOUT BEING THE WOMAN YOU ARE TODAY?
No. When I was 11 or 12, I had no idea that I would become an author or a photographer.
Back then, I was thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, though. I asked the grownups who lived in my neighborhood whether they liked their work.
I was 55 when I decided to create photographic books to tell stories about inspiring women around the world.
The man who invented Marketing Research seemed to be having the most fun. I used to sit on his fence while he was mowing his lawn and listen to his stories. The first half of my working life was inspired by those conversations: I did advertising, marketing, and public relations. Those jobs were challenging and fun. But after many years, I was ready for a change. I was 55 when I decided to create photographic books to tell stories about inspiring women around the world.
HOW DID THE EXPERIENCES IN AFRICA IMPACT YOU AFTER YOU CAME BACK TO AMERICA ?
I have now documented the lives of women and girls in Morocco, Cameroon, Senegal, Kenya, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.
The first time I went to the African continent, I returned to Marin County feeling blessed to live in a place so beautiful and shocked by its affluence. I had just visited people who were illiterate, who lived in huts, who had no electricity or water. For them, getting to a doctor or (for the girls) going to school was almost impossible. And yet, I asked myself then — and now! — “What is poverty?” You and I, Lucia, who live in Marin County, have (comparatively) a great deal of material wealth.
“What is poverty?”
You and I, Lucia, who live in Marin County, comparatively have a great deal of material wealth.
But many people in Africa (in fact, people all over the developing world) who may not have material goods, have rich community lives, rich family lives, rich cultural and rich spiritual lives.
Are they “poor”?
People in Africa who may not have material goods, have rich community lives, rich family lives and rich spiritual lives.
Are they “poor”?
IN YOUR OPINION, HOW DID THE GRANDMOTHERS IN AFRICA SUPPORT THEIR COMMUNITIES ?
I think African grandmothers are heroic.
The AIDS epidemic has killed many people in Africa, so many grandmothers are raising young children. Sometimes an African grandmother may be raising 12 or 15 or 17 children at a time!
Because the grandmothers are too old to carry water in jugs on their heads (which is the only way to get water—they collect it from lakes, streams, even puddles) …and too old to work and earn enough money to feed the kids, the grandmothers help each other.
I think African grandmothers are heroic.
For example, they collaborate to provide afterschool care and to create community gardens so they can feed the children. They teach each other how to make handicrafts to sell so they can pay school tuition, books and pencils (you know about that!).
And they form sewing cooperatives so they can make and sell school uniforms.
DID YOUR COLLEGE EDUCATION HELP SUPPORT YOUR INTEREST IN SOCIAL PROGRAMS TO HELP OTHERS ?
At Stanford University, I studied Humanities. When you learn about art, music, literature, history and cultures around the world, you learn empathy and appreciation for people everywhere.
WERE YOU EVER INVOLVED IN ANY OTHER PROGRAM THAT YOU FELT HELPED TO GUIDE YOU TO EMPOWER GRANDMOTHERS AROUND THE WORLD ?
I have always been involved in work that empowers women of all ages… from young girls to adult women to grandmothers.
For example, I was a principal in the first women-owned advertising agency in the United States. I served on the Board of Directors of the Association of Women’s Rights in Development. I was Chairman of the Board of The Crafts Center, which worked with low-income artisans in 79 countries.
I have returned to the continent of Africa to work several times. There are always important stories to discover.
DID YOU HAVE ANY EXPECTATIONS BEFORE YOU WENT TO AFRICA ?
The first two countries in Africa that I visited were Zimbabwe and South Africa. I visited women artisans who were making and selling handicrafts so they could send their children to school. I selected the Ndebele and Shona people because their crafts are beautiful, and because these craftswomen were making an important contribution to their families.
I do a great deal of research before I go to any country (I have now worked in 55 countries around the world). I always have a reasonably good idea of what to expect.
But there are always surprises.
I did not expect the women throughout Africa to be so powerful (they may have terrible problems, but they work together effectively to solve them). And I did not expect the women to have such generous, welcoming spirits. They sing and dance when they are happy—and they sing and dance to cheer themselves up when they are sad. To be invited into that energy is inspiring, healing, and wonderful.
I have returned to the continent of Africa to work six or seven times.
There are always important stories to discover and describe.
WHAT GAVE YOU THE DRIVE TO STAND UP FOR WOMEN’S RIGHTS ?
The Women’s Movement of the 1960’s, my own stubborn optimism, and my outrage at how badly women are treated in many parts of our world.
WHEN YOU ARE WORKING WITH GRANDMOTHERS AROUND THE WORLD, HOW LONG DO YOU STAY IN EACH COUNTRY ?
In my books, each chapter focuses on a specific issue in a specific country.
I usually stay for one (sometimes two) weeks in each place, which is enough time to interview and photograph the women whose stories are in my books.
WHAT DO YOU FEEL IS THE MOST IMPORTANT REASON THAT GIRLS AND WOMEN NEED TO BE EMPOWERED ?
Girls and women are capable of making unique, important contributions to their families, communities, countries and the world. They are a crucially important resource for improving the future. They can contribute creativity, energy and intelligence. And they represent 51% of the world’s population. Why on earth would we not encourage, welcome and value their help to make this troubled world a better place? I am convinced it will take all of us—ALL of us!—to create hope and possibility for this world.
Girls and women are capable of making unique, important contributions to families, communities, countries and the world.
WHAT ASPIRATION IN THE PAST HAS BEEN YOUR PERSONAL GOAL, AND HAVE YOU REACHED THAT GOAL TODAY ?
My goal is that women and their families around the world will have health; education; equality; a sustainable environment; safety from violence; social, economic and political justice—and peace.
There is much to be done.
I (we!) have not reached that goal. I expect to live a long time, but I don’t expect that goal will be reached in my lifetime. There is much to be done.
HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE SOMEONE MY AGE CARRY ON YOUR TRADITIONS OF EMPOWERING OTHER GIRLS ?
What a wonderful question!
First: I am elated to know that you share my goal of empowering girls!
Second: You are in a position to change the world.
Already, you have begun to do that. Nothing could be more important.
Full steam ahead!