We are living longer than we ever have before, if you believe what scientists have to say about human health and welfare. Yes, even us Africans who habitually bring up the rear of every measure of human health and welfare.
Which confuses me, to be honest. I mean, I am totally down with science but we’ve only been measuring African lifespans systematically for maybe a century at most?
When my elders tell me that their elders lived long and fruitful lives devoid of refined sugar, distilled spirits, cancer and depression, I believe them. I also believe that these elders of yore married at an age that would be illegal now, and thus got their reproducing out of the way nice and early. By sixty they had probably retired from the demands of agriculture/pastoralism/trade and let their kids take care of business. Did they regularly hit the century mark? Who is to say.
These days if you show up in the village at fifty someone is already trying to slide themselves obsequiously under your feet and call you Grandma, which is absolutely not appreciated by your average urbanite. Meanwhile, if you are forty and want to run for president you are called a young girl and told to wait until you are grown enough to tie your own shoelaces.
In school, I was pumped everyday with propaganda: Work hard, do good and you shall find a job and prosper, perhaps even lead... Well. It has been twenty years now and to put it politely: I have a few questions.
First of all, where is my contemporary leadership?
Where. Is. It! Those African Heroes whose names you make us memorise could barely shave when they led their countries into a glorious Independence. What did they have then that we do not have now? Free basic education? Access to nation-wide vaccination campaigns? Antiretroviral drugs, mobile telephony, protein-rich diets, affordable shoes? What? What made their youthful vigour significant in ways that ours apparently is not?
Of course I am vexed. I am sitting on the older end of a pile of “idle” Tanzanians who get told every day that the structural unemployment caused in part by our elders’ handling of our economy is somehow a result of our own laziness.
We tell youth to go to school whether or not there are teachers, they do. We tell them they ain’t worth nothing because they couldn’t pass standardised tests (never mind that there were no teachers to teach) and it is somehow their fault.
No matter, they scrape together a living selling peanuts on the streets, composing albums, making movies, fixing mobile phones, running secondhand clothing boutiques and generally driving the informal economy alongside that other group of shut-outs: women.
All while adapting to the perplexing demands of a globalised world that changes so fast even the concept of intergenerational sharing of wisdom has become imperilled. And yet here we are, at least three distinct generations all sharing this little modern space and eyeing each other over resources and specifically power.
When my elders tell me: Be patient, I want to believe them. But then I look at Robert Mugabe, Paul Biya, the steady abandonment of term limits in constitutions and am vexed and I have questions…