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By Kwesi Atta Sakyi 8th October 2014
We owe a generational debt to the old in our midst in Ghana, those who invested their material resources, time, and effort for our upbringing, investing in our human capital of health and education. That debt is incalculable. We have the Akan proverb which states that if the elders look after you to grow your teeth, you reciprocate by looking after them when their teeth are falling out. Another proverb says that if you are taller than your father, it does not mean he is your equal. There is yet another which says that when the buttocks of the older person grow lean, it means they have been transferred to the offspring.
These wisecracks enjoin us to respect the elders and look after them in their vulnerable state at old age. When it is our turn to look after them, then it is payback time. Senility is a blessing in the sense that the young profit from having role models to emulate, and living mentors to consult whenever they have a problem to solve. Care-giving of the old is called geriatrics, and the study of old people and ageing is called gerontology. A Government controlled by old people is called a gerontocracy, while adult learning is known as andragogy.
Some of the dangerous diseases which afflict the old are stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and carcinogenic diseases which are often partially lifestyle-related, and partially hereditary. With Ebola ravaging and threatening the world, I wonder whether in future there will be enough old people around to look after. In history, serious epidemics of such magnitude were the Black Death in Europe in the Middle Ages.
In Zambia, the government has an ongoing pilot programme of social cash transfer to old people in identified communities. African countries which have robust policies and implementation to look after the aged are South Africa, Mauritius, Namibia, Kenya and Botswana. The First World Assembly on Ageing was held in Vienna in 1982 under the auspices of the UN. That was followed in 2002 with the International Plan of Action on Aged in Madrid in 2002 (Wikipedia). 1st October each year has been designated by the UN as a day for the aged in our midst. Ghana has a policy on the aged but it is not fully implemented. (See hyperlink for document).
Currently in Ghana, some old people have become homeless and they sleep rough in the streets and in ramshackle shelters. Many old people cannot enjoy privacy in their own houses because they are dependants squatting with relatives. This shows the huge backlog of housing deficit we have in Ghana. We should begin thinking of developing local government pool houses for rent by vulnerable people. Our churches are flourishing in Ghana, and it is high time they chipped in to partner with government to look after the old. Better still, some of these old can form cooperatives to gain from pooled resources. The lesson to our young ones is for them to plan well for their future. Even then, they have a challenge when they face massive youth unemployment now.
One professor once told me that the nomads and wandering tribes in Africa have no graveyards or cemeteries because they are always on the move, and so they leave their sick and vulnerable to die in the wild, to be devoured by cadavers, hyenas, and animals of prey.
There was once a young man who ascended his deceased father’s throne and he outlawed all the elderly people to an island. He thereafter ruled with iron fist. On one occasion, he directed his people to hunt a leopard with bare hands and skin it. He wore the wet and bloodied skin to show off his importance. After some time, the skin was glued to his skin and it could not be peeled off.
All efforts failed. Some good guys sneaked away in a boat and went to seek advice from the exiled old people. One herbal doctor went with them and collected some leaves which he crushed in his palm and mixed it in a big drum of water. He instructed the embattled chief to be immersed in the water for some seconds. After a few minutes, the skin peeled off. On gaining consciousness, the savage young chief asked who had saved his life, and he was told it was the old man. Thereafter, he commanded all the exiled old people to be brought back, amidst feasting and great merriment.
I propose the formation of the National Heritage Foundation Fund (NHFF) in Ghana for helping our old people record their memoirs and experiences so that we do not lose the wealth of their experience. The fund should help retirees write books and memoirs. Some time ago in Ghana, the old became endangered species when the government made a caveat that old people should not be employed in the formal sector. What abject and silly discrimination! I believe those retrogrades were suffering from myopia and gerontophobia. I think we should create germane environments for our old by becoming gerontophilic or gerontocentric.
We should train more physicians like oncologists, ophthalmologists, cardiologists, and masseurs, among others to look after our old. District Assemblies and our Metropolitan Assemblies should plan to build Community Centres and Town Halls where our old can go to relax to play games like bowling, darts, snooker, squash, oware, and chess, among others. Sometimes, talking about bowling reminds me of Rip Van Winkle’s story set on the Catskill Mountains and Hudson River near New York.
The story, set in early pioneer days in America before independence in 1776, talks about Rip Van Winkle, (perhaps an early Dutch immigrant with Peter Stuyvesant who owned New York ) whose nagging wife forced him out of home to go hunting and he came across the dwarfs in great redcoats who were drinking wine from some barrels and playing the game of nine pins. Van Winkle was invited to drink, and perhaps being a sot, he drank to the last dregs. He fell into a deep sleep only to wake up many decades after. The moral import of the story is that when people are idle, mischief finds them cheap employment, which lands them in dire circumstances.
So our old should be engaged and kept busy as they are part of our national human capital. Of course, they should not work until they drop dead, but they can be taught how to retire gainfully through future search programmes, such as running consultancies, book development, among others. They need to prepare well for their retirement by having investments in high yielding but secure assets such as treasury bills, bonds, equities, mutual funds, among others.
Fertility rates are dropping in Ghana due to stress and economic hardships. However, people are living longer, with national longevity at around 60 years. Women live longer than men in Ghana as there are more women than men in age brackets above 60 years. The reasons for this could be social, biological, economic, among other causes.
Posterity will judge us one day on how we took care of our old. We should not be judgmental by condemning some old people by saying they are suffering in old age because of their reckless lifestyles when they were young. We are all fallible as mortals, and as Shakespeare the Bard averred, ‘To err is human, to forgive is divine’.
I leave you with this ode, a tribute to our pioneers.
Ode to Our Pioneers
They came to do some
Not the whole lot
But they did a lot
To allot to us a heritage
They climbed mountains
And descended vales
Charting new territories
But it was not in vain
They gave us what it takes
And left us a lot in the stakes
They made us dwelling places
And gave us education
Yes, they fought for freedom
But us, what can we offer in return?
They came to do some
Not the whole lot
They did what it took
And left us much in the stakes
So we make few mistakes
See their shining legacy in quality
Not in imposing mansions nor in physical treasures
But in the uprightness and high ideals they imparted
The wisdom in proverbs and Ananse tales narrated
The narrow and straight paths they trod-
Have germinated you and I, proud Ghanaians
Yes, our elders came to do some
Not the whole lot
But they did a lot
Our pioneers, our elders,
We salute you in voluble obeisance
Wham! Wham! Wham!
By Kwesi Atta Sakyi
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