Wrinkles of wisdom turn into wrinkles of burden as grandparents find it hard to make both ends meet
You won’t catch GogoMaTshuma gossiping at the borehole
By Patrick Musira in Harare, ZIMBABWE
During this New Year’s weekend, three old Zvishavane, Midlands, women were reportedly dragged to a village “kangaroo” court accused of being witches. A hired witch-sniffer or “prophet” accused them of being partly responsible for the deaths of other villagers!
Why? The old women had lived to such a ripe old age because, the witch-sniffer told the gathering, “they fed on human flesh”.
And so it goes these days, that older persons live in fear of being old as they can find themselves suspected of, ostracised and targeted as being witches!!
“That’s what some people in our society think. Instead of living health responsible lives and stopping all this promiscuity that results in dreaded diseases they turn around and claim: ‘I was bewitched!’ It’s a shame,” says Busisiwe MaTshuma about the incident that took place in her village.
“The young, who are dying of AIDS, should instead respect and listen to us when we talk of living responsible and healthy lives by avoiding prostitution. Now they are dying like flies and heaping on us the burden of heading households and looking after their children but at the same time accusing us of being witches!” she says.
A deeply private person, who never dabbles in village tittle-tattle at the borehole where HIV is still a taboo subject, says she lost two daughters who were married to one man, her son-in-law who was the first to succumb to the infection. (Polygamy is allowed, accepted and legal in Zimbabwe.) She was left to look after their three children with the oldest now entering high school this year.
The horrific and story is not an isolated case perpetrated by pervert individuals within a particular and specific district or context – it’s a tip of an iceberg and denotes a continuum of sad situations faced by elderly persons across the country – rural and urban.
Gogo MaDube Chinhamo knows how lucky she is to be part of the few grannies that have “something” to help them take care of their orphaned grandchildren – the majority of grandmothers have literally no other source of income to feed their families.
But even Gogo MaDube (as she is more commonly known) finds it hard to make both ends meet and sometimes feels the strain as the little she gets from the government as her son’s pension, does not get her far. And, at her age, she is forced to work the land to supplement her son’s paltry income to look after the three orphans left behind and bear the extra expense of sending them to school.
“But at least I have my own house and my son’s US$25 government pension helps me a lot. With this each month I have somewhere to begin – I am better than many others who have completely nothing,” she says, wiping some sweat from her deeply furrowed forehead. “But I have to work – there is no time to rest otherwise my children’s children will die,” she adds.
It’s getting to mid-morning in Zimbabwe and the old lady prepares to set off for her small field along Mukuvisi River, about three kilometres from her house in the Canaan section of Highfield, one of Harare’s oldest suburbs.
Despite the advancing years, three months shy of 71 years, Gogo MaDube has been up twice during the night to change the nappies of her ten months-old grandson. And that morning she had also taken another of her grandchildren to a nearby primary school.
Her eldest son died early this year due to a “short illness” and the daughter-in-law succumbed to AIDS-related complications just seven months after giving birth, leaving Gogo holding the infant.
For the old woman now, this has become more or less “normal” in her life these days. She has, in the last seven years, managed to raise two other grandchildren left behind by a divorced daughter, through primary school with the oldest now about to complete high school.
Asked where she draws all the strength from and how she seems to have accepted her fate, she straps the infant onto her back, Zimbabwe style, before attempting an answer.
“Can you put God on trial? We have to accept whatever He gives,” she says with a hint of resignation in her voice.
I met Gogo MaDube, along with other elderly persons – widows and widowers – during this year’s commemorations of the United Nations Day for Older Persons in the Harare Gardens last October.
She’d been persuaded to take a morning break from her routine by HelpAge Zimbabwe, a non-governmental organization that works for and with older persons to come to the event.
With the grandchild nicely and safely tucked away in a crib and asleep next to her, Gogo MaDube was enjoying a plate of rice and chicken – as were her other grey-haired companions.
“Older persons in most African societies are a vulnerable group as a result of hardship, malnutrition, poverty, and problems that come with age such as high susceptibility to chronic diseases,” says HAZ vice board chairperson Mrs Chigwamba.
Since the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic from the mid-1980s, more and more children – especially orphans – are being raised by grandparents.
“The HIV/AIDS pandemic is now posing an additional burden on them, further increasing their vulnerability. In their older age, when they may require support and expect to be looked after, they have to take the role of caring for others, in most cases, without even the basic necessary resources,” explains Chigwamba.
Patron of HAZ, former governor of the Midlands province Cephas Msipa, says lack of economic, social, and psychological support combined with poor access to health services by the aged, constantly restrict their ability to provide the care expected of them.
“All efforts must be made, by government, to address and support the vulnerability of these older persons. There is a serious shortage of food and non-food items in most of the households,” notes the former minister also in his late 70s.
HAZ, affiliated to HelpAge International (HAI), itself a global network of up to 200 organisations in 70 countries that advocate for the particular needs and rights of older persons, works in various districts throughout the country and not only in urban areas.
“We are implementing various programmes that include livelihood support, HIV/AIDS education and mitigation, water and sanitation promotion, education support, social protection and peer support groups for orphans and vulnerable children in older person-headed households,” explains Adonis Faifi, HAZ programmmes manager.
HAZ is also implementing a project in Zvishavane and Chiredzi rural where the organization is assisting older persons aged 60 and above with agricultural inputs, construction of toilets, rehabilitation and drilling of boreholes. Those aged 80 and above, receive monthly cash transfers of US$20.
“In Zvishavane, Chiredzi and Harare orphans under the care of older persons receive monthly vouchers and hampers worth US$50,” adds Faifi.
The government is aware of the vulnerability of older persons and is considering signing into law a draft Bill that has been on the cards since 2002.
HelpAge International (HAI) estimates that up to two thirds of people living with HIV and AIDS are cared for by parents in their 60ss, 70s and even beyond that. In 2007 alone there was an estimated 11,4 million children orphaned by AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa alone, and in highly affected countries more than 60 % of orphaned children live in households headed by their8 grandparents.
AIDS is producing thousands of orphans – children and young people who face psychological suffering, deprivation, social exclusion and multiple health risks – who have nowhere to turn to except relatives. In this instance it is grandparents.
In most societies, extended families have traditionally assumed responsibility for orphans. But in some countries with severe cases of the epidemic that is generating orphans so quickly that family structures cannot cope – granny-headed homes are becoming increasingly common in high-prevalence countries like Zimbabwe.
It is estimated that 0, 4 % of households in the country are child-headed and granny-headed families are growing in leaps and bounds.
Countries that already have legislation on ageing are South Africa (legislation), Mozambique (policy and legislation), Cameroon, Tanzania and Uganda (policy). Botswana and Namibia give pensions.
Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Mauritius, Tunisia, Zambia and a host of West African countries are at policy draft level.
“Older persons are a vulnerable group, and as such they need to be protected by domestic policy and laws,” says Sylvester Nguni, Member of Parliament for Mhondoro-Mubaira and Minister of State in Vice President Joice Mujuru’s Office.
“The AIDS pandemic amongst other factors exacerbates the poverty situation of older people at a time when they should be receiving support from their families,” he says, explaining: “This is mainly due to the demise of sources of remittances due to the death or terminal ailments of their economically active children.”
In Zimbabwe’s case, most current older persons were not fully integrated into the formal cash economy before independence due to the colonial policies and worked as domestic workers or on farms and mine labourers with no pension and very little wages and therefore could not make savings to sustain themselves in later years.
Agnetha Muchadura (70), who lives in Epworth, a peri-urban settlement 25 km south-east of the capital, has a similar story to relate but is bitter at society for being unsupportive of older persons – especially in the rural areas, “where we are looked at with suspicion and are victims of superstitions”.
“We are accused of practicing witchcraft mainly because we have lived longer than the younger generation,” moans she moans.
The Christian Counselling Centre in the capital says many children now living with grandparents enter into that arrangement with pre-existing problems like trauma and stress from the loss of their parents. “I cannot give you exact data to explicitly state that this is related to HIV/AIDS but it’s a very educated guess,” says an officer on condition of anonymity.
The number of grandparents serving as caregivers to their grandchildren is increasing according to his organization.