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A Grandmother's Gift


By Flore de Préneuf

Published Jul 1, 2010 9:05 AM


Judi Aubel listens to Djabouyel Mbalo near Sare Faramba, a village in southeastern Senegal. Djabouyel and her granddaughter, Didere, are bringing food to farmers in the fields. Photos by Flore de Préneuf.

In the Kolda region of Senegal in West Africa, old women are easily overlooked. They perform thankless chores. They are often illiterate, at a time when more and more children go to school. And as television and cell phones have spread their antennas deep into the bush, the old women have lost their monopoly on storytelling.

But Judi Aubel '69 is determined to put grandmothers back in the loop. "We have prejudices against old people when in fact they are so wise," says the California anthropologist and community health specialist.

For 20 years, Aubel has traveled the world, seeing firsthand the contributions of grandmothers in feeding, healing and watching children, settling family disputes and otherwise contributing to the health and well-being of communities all over the world. Out of those observations was born The Grandmother Project, a nonprofit Aubel founded in 2005 to promote social change in the developing world by reaching out to grandmothers.


Aubel first got involved with elderly women in 1993 on a trip to Thailand, where she noticed that grandmothers played a crucial role feeding children while parents worked in the fields. That insight turned into a successful nutrition program that tapped the influence of grandmothers.

Aubel's intellectual journey has been guided by a strong sense of empathy. As an undergraduate at UCLA, she tutored kids in the Watts neighborhood on Saturdays. She remembers vividly her bus rides into the ghetto. "I grew up in a pretty homogenous area in San Rafael. I found it challenging to enter a totally different world," she explains. "It increased my interest in sociology and anthropology and led me to join the Peace Corps." History classes with Africa scholar Boniface Obichere were also eye-opening.

These days, Aubel is using her blend of curiosity, energy and community activism to address female genital mutilation, often performed by the old women in a village. Her pilot project in Senegal is co-financed by World Vision/Canada, a humanitarian charity, and USAID. Experts estimate that the partial or total removal of external female genitalia affects 2 to 3 million girls each year, mostly in Africa. Its most extreme form, infibulation, can result in organ damage, incontinence, infertility, prolonged labor and death.

Working with a small team in 20 villages, Aubel brings together old and young men and women for two-day talk fests, punctuated by drumming and songs, so they can air their grievances and bridge communication gaps that have grown with the erosion of traditional village life. Female genital mutilation is mentioned only in passing. Participants are encouraged to reexamine harmful practices, and rescue beneficial ones — such as storytelling nights, traditional dancing and singing — from the brink of oblivion. Aubel believes grandmothers are more flexible once they feel valued for their knowledge and experience. "People say: Female genital mutilation is horrible. How can you respect the exciseuse [the person who cuts the girl]?" says Aubel. "But if you don't, you don't have a relationship, so there is no possibility of encouraging change."