KENYA is a young society. Almost half the 16 million people are under fifteen years of age. And the brightly-coloured culture of youth is everywhere. Film clips, hoardings and adverts all transmit the same message: young is best, young is virile, young is sexy, stylish, successful.
In a society that once reserved a special status for the elderly as givers of wisdom, old age is now portrayed as the ultimate failure. Far from standing dignified at the apex of a respectful society, the elderly in Keny’a today are becoming a forgotten and neglected appendix — neither wanted nor needed by the majority of their fellow citizens.
This is particularly true in the towns and cities, where rapid economic development has been accompanied by equally rapid social change over the last two decades — at enormous human cost.
Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, has a population approaching one million. With its wide streets, skyscrapers and stores bulging with merchandise, it looks like a prosperous city in the American mid-West.
Like all silver linings however, Kenya’s economic miracle has its accompanying clouds. In Nairobi, those clouds are the slums which, like a dark, half-formulated threat, surround the city just out of the visitor’s line of sight.
The Kenyatta Conference Centre reaches into the sky. The slum buildings — of cardboard, mud and plastic bags — squat near to the ground, their flimsy walls reinforced with hundreds of flattened beer and Coca-Cola tins.
The slum-dwellers themselves consist basically of two types: highly-motivated social climbers, determined to succeed at any price in the jungle of urban Kenya; and the losers, crushed underfoot in the competition, who never even reached the first rung of the ladder.
And the losers blame themselves. If they have failed, it is their own fault— for not being clever, or quick, or competitive enough In short, they deserve to be poor, to be alone, to be uncomfortable and to have no-one to attend to them when they are sick.
This attitude is most evident amongst the elderly — perhaps because there are, virtually by definition, no ‘successful’ old people in the slum areas. Those who manage to accumulate a little capital invariably leave the city and return to their home village when they grow old. The ones who stay behind do so because they have nothing to return to — neither family nor land — and because they do not have enough money to buy themselves a life of greater comfort.
Mika Kerago is 84 and lives in the New Grogan slum area. His home is not much more than six feet square. A rusty cot with a thin foam mattress covered by dirty army-surplus bedding takes up one wall. Lined along another are cooking implements — a makeshift charcoal brazier, three burnt and blackened pots, a knife, a fork and a tin opener, all neatly placed side-by-side on the earth floor. There is no toilet, no electric light and the nearest water is 300 metres away.
And if all this were not enough for one old man to bear, he literally never knows where his next meal is coming from and lives completely isolated from neighbours living only a few feet from his front door. But he sees nothing wrong in this. ‘Why should my neighbours help me? They don’t know me. They don’t owe me anything. They have their own problems.’
And according to social workers Mika is not unusual among the aged in Nairobi’s slums. Here the traditional values of Kenyan society and the structures that underpin those values are breaking down.
Many slum-dwellers came from rural areas. When they leave the countryside they also seem to leave behind the traditions of the countryside. Extended families — embracing children, parents and grandparents in close-knit patterns of duty and responsibility — are hard to find in the slums. Divorce rates are high and children often have to fend for themselves from an early age.
Old people like Mika — himself a divorcee — have no-one to rely on. And he might not have survived the past year at all had it not been for small gifts of food and money from the Undugu Society of Kenya — a welfare organisation that has initiated a programme of social development in the city.
Father Arnold, one of the Undugu organisers, summarises the problem: ‘Here in the slums everyone has to be self-reliant — and God help those who are not. Quite frankly, even if you are my friend and you get sick, I may just pass you by.’
For this reason the Undugu Society is trying not just to provide charity for the old and isolated, but also to reinstate the traditional values that sustain community life in Kenya.
One of Undugu’s ideas was to provide free lunches to school children in New Grogan, where Mika lives, and to invite old people along to eat with the children. When an old person is too weak or disabled to walk to the school, children carry food to him, creating a new co-operative atmosphere in the community by re-establishing links between old and young.
In other slum areas, Undugu has organised weekly gatherings of destitute old people where they are provided with tea, a small money allowance and an interested and sympathetic ear. Already these meetings are becoming a focus of community concern for the elderly and Undugu has been able to step back to allow a ‘village committee’ to take over.
Now the committee is responsible for distributing Undugu money to the old people. The committee also organises neighbours to help out with cooking and other care during the week. In return the old are asked to do something for the community, such as minding the children of working women. The result is that the old begin to feel accepted and useful again. And their neighbours have begun to form the basis of a caring community once more.
Amongst Kenya’s urban poor, the elderly must be counted as the poorest, the most deprived and the most endangered group — victims of the rapid changes in Kenyan society. And they exist as a challenge to those who insist that African communities take care of their old. ‘That may be so in the countryside,’ says Undugu. ‘But in the cities, in the slums of Nairobi, it just cannot be taken for granted any more,’