By Sithokozile Hlahla
MBUYA Sophia Mundenda sits on the doorstep of her derelict hut in the rural area of Dora Pindo in Mutare with her hand cradling her cheek as she ponders her next move.
Not only is there no food in the house, but her 10-year-old granddaughter playing in the sand nearby, one of the six she is looking after, has not been going to school for the past two weeks after she was barred from attending lessons because of non-payment of school fees.
Had it been six months ago, she would have gone to beg for assistance from her neighbour who owns a grinding mill and is quite well off, but ever since the villagers accused her of witchcraft after a tsikamutanda fingered her as a culprit , her neighbour wants nothing more to do with her, in fact noone does.
Mbuya Mundenda is not alone in her predicament as the challenges she is facing are common amongst the elderly in Zimbabwe.
According to the Central Statistical Office rebranded to Zimbabwe Statistical Agency, people aged 60 and above are seven percent of the projected population of 12,4 million in Zimbabwe.
Speaking at a recent awareness raising workshop organised by HelpAge Zimbabwe, the executive director at the organisation, Mrs Priscilla Gavi, said older people face a lot of challenges in the society among them lack of legislation on ageing, lack of recognition especially on the caring role of older persons in Zimbabwe caring for orphans, inadequate social protection mechanisms by the Government for senior citizens, community's negative perspective on older persons, low level of understanding or appreciation of the issues affecting older persons and old age induced disability and its problems
Her views were supported by Dr Tavengwa Nhongo, the regional director for Africa Platform for Social Protection who said there is need to define an "old person" as a lot of older persons in Zimbabwe are being left out of social programmes because of their appearance.
"There is need to define old age. The population of older people is increasing worldwide including Zimbabwe. Older persons face a lot of challenges and discrimination, for example, it is usually the elderly in society who are accused of witchcraft and in some countries those accused are killed.
"Around 35 percent of older persons across Africa consult traditional healers as the first form of medical care because modern medicine is often too expensive for them. At times they are also discriminated against at the medical institutions with some being told they are wasting medicine meant for younger people. Given that scenario, there is need for the
Government to recognise such traditional medicine and make sure it works with modern medicine.
"Older persons are also excluded from HIV and AIDS information and prevention programmes because of the mistaken belief that they are no longer sexually active. The fact is they are and can still be sexually active, both men and women and as such it is their right to be included in such programmes," he said.
Dr Nhongo also bemoaned the death of traditional concepts of social protection like the Zunde Ramambo and nhimbe, saying these went a long way in ensuring every member of society was catered for especially the elderly. Investing in them, he said, could lead to the country's citizens breaking their dependency on foreign systems of aid.
Speaking at the same workshop, the director of social services in the Ministry of Labour and Social Services, Mr S Mhishi, said senior citizens were part of a group of people considered vulnerable by virtue of age and way they relate with other functions of society adding that anyone is potentially vulnerable and the Government through his ministry is doing its best to take care of its elderly.
"The Ministry of Labour and Social Services is the Government arm mandated with the welfare of vulnerable groups of the society including the elderly. These senior citizens are not a spent force, but are carers of the orphaned and the sick and as it has emerged recently, a source of our cultural values. Hence in 2002, the Government drafted the Older Persons Bill in a bid to improve the lives of the elderly.
"In response to the international conventions, the Government put in place the following: the Older Persons Bill (2002) which seeks to provide protection of older persons against discrimination with regard to access to public premises, services and amenities, the social Welfare Assistance Act (1988) which seeks to ameliorate the suffering among the vulnerable groups of the society through the provision of social services for example the Cash Transfer Programme and health assistance.
"Several polices have also been introduced among them: Public Assistance - a means tested programme in which the elderly access monthly maintenance allowances, Health Assistance - the elderly access health assistance at government and other designated referral centres, Burial Assistance - for those without relatives and Harmonised Cash
Transfer," he said ,urging society to take care of its senior citizens as institutions cannot cater for them all even when they are working at full capacity.
Despite efforts by the Government and other stakeholders, the elderly continue to suffer and at times it seems getting old is now a crime.
Blame has been put on the youths especially who seem to have lost all sense of respect for their elders and seem to regard them as a nuisance. Terms such as "kamudhara" and "gogaz" are prominent in the youth lingo, a far cry from the respectful "mbuya" and "sekuru" of the past.
This seeming disregard and disrespect from society often leads to the elderly suffering emotional and economical stress, situations that have seen some wandering the streets as beggars.
Given our cultural values as Zimbabweans that frown upon relegating one's elderly relatives to an institution for care, the onus therefore remains on each member of society to ensure that they play their part in making lives of the elderly more comfortable and accord them the dignity they deserve as the custodians of our history and cultural values.
The Government and other stakeholders should also play their role and see to it that more is done for the elderly for example, access to free medical care should also include medicinal drugs as opposed to the current scenario whereby only the consultation is for free and older people have to scrounge around and look for money to buy drugs they failed to get at hospitals.
An African proverb goes: "Those who respect the elderly pave their own road toward success" and yet another one says "The mouth of an elderly man is without teeth, but never without words of wisdom." Time is ripe for society to realise that elderliness is not a disease, but richness.-Manica Post