Francis Mupazviriho

Zimbabwe has undergone profound socio-economic changes, which have inadvertently impacted on the previously thriving traditional care facilities for older persons.The traditional household care was, of course, primary, with medical facilities being “referral” institutions especially for routine medical checks or serious conditions warranting the doctor’s attention.

This system, which provided care and support to older persons, was a by-product of embedded cultural and religious values.All religions attach a sentimental value to the care of older persons, which presumably brings blessings and rewards in the fullness of time.Psalms 71 verse 9 reads: “Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent.”But I digress.

It is trite that the changing socio-economic conditions, which have a bearing on the household care of older persons, has not only impacted on the Zimbabwean society alone, but generally the African circumstances in general.

Before the advent of colonialism, our people lived communally and were organised as polities, led by chiefs, whose subjects were essentially closely knit families, which were often large, extended and quite often organised on tribal lines.

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Then came colonialism which disrupted this family organisation, with African working males being forced to toil in industries in towns.

Wives remained behind in rural areas with the children, in what constituted an egregious racial system which had a bearing on the family’s traditional organisation.

Despite these threats, the African family unit remained intact. It was bound to the values of love, peace and co-existence despite the magnanimity of the disruptions it was going through under colonialism.

Then the advent of independence brought glorious opportunities for the previously marginalised. So our people left rural areas, chasing one opportunity after another in the thriving industries servicing the local and foreign markets. In turn, high-density suburbs were quickly populated, as the labour force engaged in various economic activities. Some went on to start new lives in low-density suburbs which had been the preserve of the whites, or simply the “few Africans” who had made the “cut”.

It is trite that the overwhelming social and economic changes, which have had a bearing on the care of the older persons, can be traced back to post-independence era.

The rural-urban migration marked a genesis of this social mobility which has continued to reinvent itself with passage of time. And older persons have borne the brunt of these changes.

Further to the characteristic internal movements, it has, however, been the outbound migration of young people which has severely affected the social organisation of the family unit, despite the mass connectivity brought by the internet and social media.

Zimbabwe’s “born free generation” is largely cosmopolitan. Today our young people are searching for jobs and educational opportunities regionally and internationally. Without doubt, this diaspora-based contingent has played an incisive role sending remittances back home, and assuming critical social functions in the process.

But that is part of the story: The family unit and its ties have been severely weakened.

But how did we get there?

In the past, polygamy was a thriving system, whose unions led to the “strong family” unit which primarily served economic purposes for subsistence farming. Even monogamous entities also bore several children who would assist in farming and other such economic activities.

While both practices of monogamy and polygamy sought a “strong family unit”, the patriarchal society, however, largely framed women’s roles as child bearers.
Notwithstanding these realities, there is no doubt that this system provided essential care to senior citizens, especially during the times of advanced years, requiring undivided social and medical attention.

Nowadays, we are witnessing some unfortunate individualism, neglect and rampant selfishness as our society neglects its primary care responsibility which defined our societal organisation. Notwithstanding the numerous causes of older people’s neglect, there is no doubt that our society has become a pure shadow of its past.

In the past, our society was loving, value-based and the attached sentimentality to older persons, who were revered as bastions of wisdom, churning out one lifelong nugget after another, while grandchildren carefully listened. An inter-generational link was built. In times of sickness, with the family and society each having a responsibility to take care of older persons, or at least render some form of support.In the past, the family unit was quite strong unlike nowadays.

This writer’s late paternal grandmother, Mbuya Majecha spent most her last days in the custody of her sons and daughters-in-law. This writer’s mother, who was unemployed then (however, engaging in economic activities), assumed the full time responsibility of taking care of grandma, who had been diagnosed with tuberculosis.

So did her sisters-in-law, with grandma having the privilege of choosing whose house she wanted to go to next. Our society has now changed, women are no longer domiciled to the housewife status, as was the case before and after independence, especially in the 1980s and 1990s.

While independence came with unprecedented opportunities, these were largely the preserve of males working in light and heavy industries. Formally, the civil service was no doubt the biggest absorber of women especially, as part of a scheme to equalise opportunities regardless of gender.

While the enjoyment of employment opportunities has positively brought empowerment and relief to men, who were the primary “breadwinners”, it has, however, disrupted the primary care functions which women ordinarily assumed especially regarding the care for order persons, who were largely resident in rural areas.

In the olden times, the daughter-in-law needed strong attributes to take care of her mother-in-law, domiciled in the rural area. Of course, this has largely changed due to the changing socio-economic changes which have affected the family’s organisation.

Then there is the growing informal sector, as well. The reorganisation of the economy over the years has greatly led to the “dominance” of the formal sector which employs young people, women and men of various ages.

The unpredictable working hours have cast a spell on the social ties needed in rendering moral and physical support to seniors.When this writer’s mother assumed a teaching job, she would often assume a care role, when she returned from work. Today’s typical family now needs to cope up with the demands of surviving in an urban setting.

There is no doubt that this has put severe pressure on young families, some who have sadly abdicated their responsibilities.This pressure has even been quite stronger especially for young people in the diaspora. While some have lived up to their role as “benefactors”, literally carrying the responsibilities of the entire family on their shoulders at young ages, some have, however, left their parents (who are older citizens), assuming parental responsibilities for the second if not the third time, with very little support, if any.
There is no doubt that Zimbabwean families can generally relate with such.

In some situations, some older persons have had to assume the burden of taking care of children, especially those orphaned by HIV and Aids or other such causes accounting for mortality.

While migration has brought a positive contribution especially in terms of sending remittances back at home, which are used for household recurrent expenditure in health, education and other such needs, it has however rattled the organised family unit of the past.

That the fortunes of our young people have been mixed is however no excuse for the neglect of older persons. For the greater part of the year, this writer has been staying with his grandfather. Sometime in June, this writer’s mother simply decided to go to Mutoko to pick her father, whose health was severely deteriorating.

Officially his year of birth is 1918 and obviously has dozens of children with his first wife, now late after having developed schizophrenia in the early 2000s, leading to her death in her seventies.

Her mental breakdown of course emerged after grandpa had taken another wife whom he relocated with within Mutoko.There is no doubt that old age is generally a time of increased vulnerability with little recourse, even medically. Yet in this time of need, older persons need much support from their families.

Yours truly has gotten to understand old age much, out of the daily interaction with grandpa.While my grandfather exhibits some fitness in his age and is able to talk, it is however his bony structure which evidenced his advanced state. Despite having ability to cobble conversations here and there, he is however confounded by some dementia. His skin is extremely tender while his feet are often swollen. A myriad of health problems evidently.

Due to old age, he can’t walk and remains bedridden for the greater part of the day. While age comes with wisdom, it however comes with so many health challenges especially in advanced years.

Grandpa had a dozen of children with his first wife, most who have now departed leaving behind just two “remaining girls”. Most of his grandchildren are resident in South Africa with few remaining locally.

Only a few grandchildren have bothered to extend their moral and financial support. This has been sad. There is no doubt that most families can relate with such circumstances, which have inherently depicted the fissures within the traditional family unit.

Evidently, social and economic conditions have brought a bearing on the traditional family structure which now undergoes inadvertent changes brought by the search for opportunities both at home and abroad.

While this search for opportunities has positively contributed towards raising families, it has however led to the weakening of family ties and social care systems which were primarily responsible for the upkeep of older persons, both in times of happiness and need.