Symptom of systemic failure of traditional structures

20Jan 2019
Michael Eneza
Guardian On Sunday
Symptom of systemic failure of traditional structures

HELPING the elderly in this or that district, village or community has become a routine point of reference in the media, with the matter taking a higher profile in governance preoccupations in the past ten years or so.

Sr. Dativa Mukebita talks with Nikodem Lucian at the Village Angels of Tanzania project in Ngara, Tanzania. Photo: Courtesy Sergio Burani

Yet it is apparent that measures that were initiated in that regard were perfunctory at best, as hardly anything has changed in that direction.

Compared to what has been done in relation to other population groups - some would say 'marginalized' the level of effect of policy on the elderly must be considered minimal, as the group has few real backers.

In the first place, when one talks of elderly, there is a predominance of men as elders, while in reality women are half the elderly group but don't appear to take an equally substantial portion of the elderly profile in routine media image.

At the same time, women elderly have a problem attached to them in portions of the country, that of witching suspicions, as the phenomenon is so ingrained in the reality that even Scripture says 'do not let a witch woman live,' instead of a witch simply or witching person. It is an image ingrained in cultures in Africa and elsewhere.

Elderly persons face problems of inability to ensure their livelihoods, and in many cases - starting from the peak years of the AIDS pandemic - they even have young children to take care of, either from death of parents, or abandonment.

This problem of generational care is also true of young girls, often forced to leave school to look after siblings younger than themselves, or with AIDS, sick parents who can't assure a day's labour and food on the table. 

With elderly women there is often inter-generational company, while elderly men face danger of isolation. It is also possible there is a psychological aspect to it, that elderly women are used to being part of a household without personal independence, so the poverty is less directly felt save in case of lack of meals, etc.

With elderly men it is also the loss of the kind of autonomy they are mostly attached as bread winners, along with the tendency to live outdoors for much of the time, in which case the poverty becomes all the more glaring.

Elderly women are more inward looking and thus their poverty is part of inner city reality, privations of each household, suffered silently.

One can thus say that poverty at upper generation level is outward and demonstrative in the case of elderly men and rather inward and repressed in the case of elderly women,, and thus when it comes to meetings of a social or community sort related to plight of elderly, it is the men who routinely come out.

While it is an illustration of greater autonomy socially and within respective households, it is also auxiliary evidence that poverty is felt more personally at that level instead of the family poverty that elderly women face.

To this image of poverty and almost everywhere elders being seen as beggars is the opposite of image received in folklore, of elders as repository of respect, and even power in numerous ethnic groups, as repository of property, key decisions.

A situation where being elderly is separate from power and influence as to what goes on in the family or community is no longer symptomatic or representative of what is routinely understood as African society.

It is a pale shadow of what elders were in such society, seen when one glances at what the youthful independence leader Julius Nyerere said in his first essay as national leader, in January 1962, "Ujamaa:

The Basis of Traditional African Society," that 'the elders sat under a tree, and talked until they agreed.' They would be deciding community matters, while at present they would at best be playing some traditional game like 'bao,' be drinking or talking politics...

At one point in the previous decade, elders in a certain town convened and issued a resolution asking the government to help them obtain drugs to combat bed bugs.

There is little question that the presence of bed bugs is in many cases an illustration of poverty, despite that they are pests like mosquitoes or flies, which scarcely illustrate the social status of an individual if they are seen in the vicinity. 

That the matter had to be resolved by an appeal to the government implies that practically all of them faced that problem, and ipso facto, scarcely any of them had the means to end the bed bugs plague, which evidently tells on intensity of poverty they faced.

What we can plainly see is that the elders of today belong to a modern society which lacks a proper system of pensions or retirement benefits that are adequate as a living wage, not elders of a traditional society who are guardians of the wealth or property in their families, communities.

This huge difference means that existing ploys of guarding traditional structures like customary land occupancy titles are misdirected in thinking that they are meant to ensure traditional society is not disturbed, especially when land purchasers from outside take advantage of freehold titles.

As a matter of fact the customary title prevents capitalisation of land, converting traditional users into small commodity producers on a less valuable land patch.

Commercially held land would have the productivity, gains and taxes enabling proper pensions for elderly, thus removing the shame awaiting those who reach 60, 65 years or above - unless they used opportunities to accumulate.

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