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Home arrow Travel arrow Stereotyping Africa

Do you have specialized homes for your old people?

In Africa, grand and great grandparents live on their own, or with their children, and this is a great honor to the children who take the best care of them until death. Whether they are on their own or with their children, it is culturally the children's responsibility to provide for their aged parents and elders until their death. Our grandparents and elders are the custodians of our culture, and so when they spend their last days with any of their children, they spend time training their grandchildren and educating the entire family on the ways of the land. Like true authorities, they counsel the young on many issues that the young think they know how to handle, but have proven themselves not yet prepared. These grandparents and elders, sometimes even act as arbiters in family disputes and the like. Because of their strategic role in the family, it is hard to see a time when Africa's culture will commercialize catering for their old people on a large scale akin to what is encountered in the West. Our elders are family, the joys and blessings of their children's homes. Some business minded people are bound to try commercializing catering for the old in Africa, like most else that is Western now creeping into the continent, but whether or not it will flourish is left for time to prove.

How do you treat your senior citizens in Africa?

In the countries of Africa, age accords respect and, to a certain extent, power and authority, especially over those who are younger. Unlike in the West, where people do all they can to fight against aging, and increasingly empower the youth even at the detriment of the aged, Africans are proud of the aging process and relate to it with grace because of the dignity and authority it brings them in society. As Malidoma Patrice Some rightly puts it:

For most traditional African cultures, an elder is one whom the village acknowledges as having reached not only a state of old age but also a state of maturity and wisdom. Elders are repositories of tribal knowledge and life experience, essential resources for the survival of the village, anchoring it firmly to the living foundation of tradition. The old and elder are the most revered members of the village community and its greatest preservers and nurturers. It is natural that everyone should be attracted by age, to becoming old. (123124)

It is not surprising, then, to hear people use their age to assert their authority in the presence of younger people. The Yoruba of Nigeria are unsurpassed when it comes to displaying respect to an older person. Summarily speaking, a son greeting his parent or any other elder, has to prostrate before him or her while uttering his verbal salutation, whereas a daughter in the same situation will go down on both knees as she greets. This is so genuine and so much part of the culture that it is only normal to see a young woman talking to an elder over the phone genuflecting as she greets, completely oblivious of the fact that the elder is not physically present; it is enough that she can hear her and so she must accord the respect the elder deserves. One might as well add here that in the face of authority, which could be one's boss at work, or just an older colleague even, or at home where it could be a parent or an older sibling, the African is usually humble and submissive, especially if the authority figure is someone he has genuine respect for. It is the culture then to see a subordinate looking at the ground when being addressed by the said authority. From time to time, the subordinate looks up at the authority figure's face—but generally avoids eye-contact—before lowering his eyes again. It is a way of showing that he is alert and paying attention to the authority figure. Unlike in the West, When African's avoid eye contact with an authority figure, it is not an indicator that they are hiding something. It is regrettable to say some of these rich aspects of Africa's culture are threatened today as some of their sons and daughters, after contact with Western notions of liberty, freedom, and equality, sometimes try to treat their elders with indifference. This is frowned at seriously, yet one cannot help wondering what it will be like when the days for these "beentos" to become elders will arrive, whether they would remember their own culture or pretend to be "free" and "civilized."

I hear you do not call older people by name. Is this true?

In African communities, the respect for age is paramount. As a result, a younger person cannot just call an elder by his or her name directly. There are special words, akin to "Mr." or "Mrs." in English; but these are much more endowed with affection, love, and endearment than formality, and they are used before the person's name as a sign of respect when referring to an older person. These epithets differ from group to group. The Bali people of Cameroon put the word "Ni" before an older person's name or may simply call the person Ni if he is being directly addressed; the Mankon people of the same area used the expression Ngia and so on. Sometimes, depending upon how familiar the one is to the other, words such as "mother," "father," and other terms of endearment, even traditional titles, may be used in referring to somebody just as a sign of respect. For example, it is not uncommon to hear somebody—a male—from Kumbo, in Cameroon, being referred to by the traditional title of Shey which he has not earned, just as a sign of respect. In the Bamenda Grassfields of Cameroon, respect for an older person is such a pivotal concept in the people's worldview that even being older than another person by even just a day determines seniority.

 
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