New Internationalist

Bosom Of The Family

Issue 264

Bosom of the family
Old people should be cared for by their families. That's the tradition
in Nigeria and that's the way it should stay, says the Government.
But times have changed and so has Nigerian society.
Elizabeth Obadina reports.

'Getting old in Nigeria may become a source of great fear for the youth of today,' says Mr Ose Ogunkorode, secretary of the newly-formed Retired and Old People's Foundation. In September 1994 the Foundation petitioned Nigeria's military rulers for funding to meet the 'tremendous deprivation and unfortunate neglect' that it sees among the Nigerian elderly.

Elderly pressure groups are not new to Nigerian society. Dr Yomi Peters, a general practitioner, says that they have always had an influence: 'We like to think of our people caring for everyone within the family. Although that may have been universally true - and still holds true in most instances - that caring wasn't always spontaneous. It was a person's duty.'

She goes on to explain that sons and daughters were often 'bullied into caring for elderly parents, aunts, uncles or even cousins by well-organized associations of elderly people in the village. Nowadays a sense of duty is not one of the social values encouraged by Nigerian society, the youth aren't to hand in the villages and our elders are losing out.'

Mama Ade, aged 62, has four sons and one daughter scattered to the four corners of the earth in search of employment and security. She knows that they will not be able to support her in old age. 'Luckily for me I bought land when I had savings and built on it. Now I am old the rents can keep me. And if I get old and sick I will get rid of one of my housegirls and get a nurse instead.'

Old people with no family may find a place in the Holy Family Home (below) - others must carry on working to survive (above).
PHOTO: ELIZABETH OBADINA

But this is not at all how she used to envision the last years of her life. At her age, having brought up five children, worked as a trader all her life to put her sons through university and supported her husband until his death, she feels she should now be cosseted, looked after by her children and surrounded by grandchildren. 'I should be relying on them, but they still rely on me even though they are grown-up,' she laments.

But Mama Ade is comparatively lucky. Most Nigerians must continue working, mainly as traders or small-scale farmers, until their health fails. Elderly people without a family or savings or too frail to work often face a life on the streets. In Lagos, a city of six million people, there are two old people's homes. They provide just 37 places to strictly-destitute elderly. Nationally there are 13 homes serving Nigeria's population of 95 million.

'Our home is not meant for people with children,' says Sister Bibiana Ovigho who runs the Holy Family Home for the Elderly in the Muslim slums of Lagos. 'We hold firm to tradition and believe that an old person's life is complete within their family.'

The Sisters strenuously attempt to relocate the destitute elderly brought to their doors back with their families. But it is not always possible. 'The extended-family system can't work when everyone is struggling to feed themselves,' says Sister Bibiana. 'Fewer people have time or money for elderly aunts and uncles who do not have children of their own.'

But even in the most loving and caring of households, elderly people are facing a new problem: loneliness. 'Nowadays everyone has to go to work to survive,' says Sister Bibiana. 'Mothers go to work, children go to school and the elderly one is left at home. Lonely. Even for wealthy families who put a housegirl there to care for their aged the problem is not solved, for what the elderly need is love and to feel that they are still very important people. We have to make time to listen to them. And no-one seems to have time any more.'

Ideally most of Nigeria's elderly would prefer to stay in or return to the quieter life of their ancestral towns and villages. Most rent-payers in Nigeria's cities are building themselves a house in the village, block by block. In the popular imagination the village is a place where there is no loneliness, where the cost of living is cheaper, where there are friends on tap for support and comfort 24 hours a day and where grandchildren are a constant source of pleasure. Many elderly Nigerians keep hold of the dream - but the reality is very different.

'What would we live on if I go home?' asks Sunday Barrah. The 66-year-old grandfather treks in from the outlying suburbs of Lagos to tidy gardens. Most of his wages are spent on transportation. Some goes towards food and the rent of one room for himself and his two unemployed sons. The balance he sends home to his wife in a village in eastern Nigeria. She is keeping the spacious family bungalow ready for his return. She eats what she farms and relies on the money sent from Lagos for other manufactured essentials. Her family sent her one of her granddaughters to help with the heavy work and to keep an eye on her failing health. It is not the retirement idyll she and her husband dreamt of during their middle age in Lagos.

Gardens of hope - 66-year-old Sunday Barrah (left) and Ezekial Eyoh can only dream of retiring to the village.
PHOTO: ELIZABETH OBADINA

Pensionless, confronted with increasingly expensive health care and with family resources already stretched to the limit, all Nigerians face a grim old age unless the Government steps in with material help. There are proposals before the Constituent Assembly - convened by Nigeria's current military rulers - to provide free health care for all aged 65 and over. But at the moment all health care must be paid for.

The Federal Ministry of Health and Human Services is watching with interest the progress of the scheme in Minna, a northern state capital, whereby households are paid a subsidy of 150 naira (about $7.50) monthly to keep their elderly destitutes from begging in the streets.

'We feel care for the elderly should take place within the family. Government policy has always been to emphasize the traditional system of caring and nowadays it needs to adjust and identify the additional support which that traditional system needs,' says David Waminaje, Director of Social Welfare of the Federal Ministry of Health and Human Services.

The general reluctance to make financial provision for old age is a major problem. 'Junior staff don't like subscribing to pension schemes,' says a manager for one of the foreign multinational companies operating in Nigeria. 'Young staff are eternally optimistic. No-one believes that their lowly job is anything less than a stepping-stone to a big contract and becoming a millionaire. But more seriously, inflation makes a joke of receiving a naira pension in 30 years' time. The naira is virtually worthless.'

Meanwhile, old people are not a priority for the Government. Out of Nigeria's 95 million people only 0.02 per cent survive to become officially elderly: that is, over 65. In fact, life expectancy for Nigerians in 1989 was 54. By 1993, according to the Central Bank's economic report, it had fallen to 52. As far as the Government is concerned, resuscitating infant immunization programmes which prolonged life expectancies during the 1980s is a more pressing social need.

So care for the elderly stays where it has always been - in the bosom of the family. To Nigeria's cash-strapped Government this makes both financial and ideological sense. The problem is that the elderly are increasingly getting a raw deal from the very bosom that is meant to sustain them.

Elizabeth Obadina is a freelance writer and journalist living in Lagos.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995


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