This 80-Year-Old Grandma Walked Hundreds of Miles to Retrace the Underground Railroad

And 14 other grannies who are shaking up the world.
Grandmothers We Love

Photo by Marisol Villanueva.

1. Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers

The Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers—a force “for the good of all beings”—is a group of matriarchs who are spiritual leaders from native communities around the world. Coming from what they call “the four directions”—North and South America, Africa, and Asia—they work to educate others about indigenous ways of life, sacred stories, and values. Most importantly for them, they pray for healing the Earth and the reconciliation of its people.

“When you get to the age when you realize life is finite,” says Jyoti, director of the Center for Sacred Studies, who initially brought the grandmothers together, “you look around and think about what we’re leaving our children.” The grandmothers’ mantra, and the title of the documentary telling their story, is “For the Next Seven Generations.”

“When we say that,” explains grandmother and Hopi tribal elder Mona Polacca, “we’re talking about hope. We’re having this hope that life will continue.” The 13 grandmothers have traveled the world to speak and lead ceremonies at environmental events for the past 10 years. Now they’re looking at how to pass on the tradition to the next generation of grandmothers.

2. Joan Southgate: Walking to Retrace the Underground Railroad

Joan SouthgateJoan Southgate, retired Cleveland social worker and grandmother of nine, used to walk a daily mile for exercise—“an old lady stroll,” as she described it. Then one day she felt a calling to praise her ancestors who walked hundreds of miles to freedom: She decided to retrace their steps along the Underground Railroad.

In 2002, at age 73, Southgate began walking the 519 miles from Ripley, Ohio  to St. Catharines, Ontario, Harriet Tubman’s terminus on the Underground Railroad. Traveling 10 miles a day, she visited Underground Railroad sites, gave presentations at schools, and slept in the homes of welcoming strangers, her own “safe houses.”

Cleveland’s Underground Railroad codename was “Hope” and Southgate, motivated by her pilgrimage, founded Restore Cleveland Hope to save the city’s only remaining Underground Railroad house from demolition. To raise money for the project, Southgate, at age 80, walked another 250 miles from Canada back to Cleveland, completing the final mile with 170 companions inspired by her journey.

The house will open next year as an Underground Railroad teaching center where Southgate hopes people will learn “what is possible in the way of changing the world and loving people.”

3. Moyoni Mukanirwa Olive: Lighting Up a Village

Moyoni Photo by Henry Cirhuza

Photo by Henry Cirhuza.

Moyoni Mukanirwa Olive lives in the small rural village of Rusayo, Rwanda. She never went to school and used to work as a farmer. In 2011, she attended the Barefoot College in Rajasthan, India, for six months. Today she is a solar engineer.

The college focuses on training grandmothers because they typically stay in their communities after training and share their skills. To be chosen, the women must be illiterate or semi-literate and from a village without electricity. Each year, about 180 women from around the world are trained, mostly using gestures and pictures, to install and repair solar panels, lamps, and charge controllers.

Since returning to Rwanda, Olive has installed solar fixtures in hundreds of homes. Previously, people from her village had to walk 15 kilometers to charge their cellphones and buy kerosene for hurricane lamps. Now they charge their phones at home and children can study at night.

Olive’s dream is to teach other women to be solar engineers, though she worries the insecurity of war could get in the way. She hopes her five grandchildren can “enjoy and also learn from this experience.”