NGUGI: Does ageism mean elderly people’s rights are no longer human rights?

Wednesday October 09 2019

An elderly couple. Contrary to popular belief, older persons suffer humiliation, abuse, neglect and even geronticide. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


October 1 is the International Day for the Elderly. The day highlights the marginalisation of the elderly and, through campaigns and advocacy, calls for states to create societies where all people — old and young — are accorded the same rights. Contrary to popular belief, older persons suffer humiliation, abuse, neglect and even geronticide.

The world over, the killing of older persons happens in their houses, geriatric hospitals and old people’s homes. It is telling of our attitude towards the elderly, and especially elderly women, that when the young Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment decides he has a right to kill a ‘‘useless’’ human being, he chooses to kill an elderly woman.


In the Africa of old, society was organised in a hierarchy in which the elderly were at the top and the youngest at the bottom. The highest political and social status was occupied by the oldest members of the society. It is ironic that today in Africa, the elderly occupy the lowest status in society.

As in other regions, they are dispossessed of their property, physically and emotionally abused and, in many cases, killed.

Because Africa generally has weak institutions to safe guard human rights, older people here tend to suffer these atrocities more than anywhere else. Every year, tens of elderly people are killed on suspicion of being witches and wizards. Elderly people in Kilifi County on the Kenyan Coast for example, once wondered loudly to a news reporter whether growing old had become a death sentence.


Some years ago, a horrifying video circulated on social media (later withdrawn due to its extremely horrific nature). In it, villagers in Kisii County in western Kenya are seen burning elderly people suspected of being witches. When an elderly woman tries to escape from the flames, a largely symbolic gesture because she is weak, she is kicked back into the fire. One old man sits without flinching as the flames consume him. What was the man thinking as he sat there amidst the flames? Did he intend for his innocence to rise above the flames and lick at our conscience? Did he intend to haunt our conscience until we stopped this carnage against older persons? Or had the daily humiliation and abuse made him weary of life?

Witch killing is also common in other countries in East, West and Central Africa.

HelpAge International, an older persons’ rights organisation, has researched this phenomenon. The findings point to an intersection of superstition, poverty and greed.

In impoverished rural communities, calamities are attributed to evil forces. Older persons who live alone, wear tattered clothes, have red eyes because of staying for long periods in front of a smoking fire, mumbling to themselves and have the habit of collecting odds and ends seem to fit the popular imagination of a witch.


Then there are those who use witchcraft as a pretext to dispossess the elderly of their land. The murders are aided by a context of general belief that older persons are dispensable.

The killing of older people does not attract the attention of local human rights organisations the way extra judicial killings by the police does.

First, the killings are usually not prominently reported as the former. Second, human rights activists, like the rest of society, subconsciously believe that old lives are not as important as young ones.

For the political class, killing of the elderly is just not a sexy issue that will bring in votes. In any case, the political class has never been interested in tackling the life and death issues that face people.

If you doubt this, let me remind you of 2017 when the Kenya government was so caught up with its re-election campaign that it took Catholic bishops to urge a pause in order to attend to famine and resulting deaths in parts of the country.

If the political class had been interested in people’s welfare and not their own, Kenya and Africa would not be bedevilled by these medieval practices. Instead, African societies would be among the most prosperous and progressive in the world.

As for the intellectual class, this issue, together with FGM, child marriage, ethnic violence, etc., conflicts with their idyllic portrayal of Africa and is avoided like the plague. To highlight such issues, according to popular intellectual expression, is a symptom of the condition called “Afro-pessimism.”

The 2010 Constitution is the foundation on which we must base our society. The constitution guarantees the human rights of all persons — old and young. This awareness must be part of renewed efforts to protect the rights of older persons.