When I first came to Europe I visited a friend in a remote village - somewhere.
I was shocked by the manner the guy talked to his parents. They argued and spoke in a way that I would never dare communicate with my parents back in Africa. Months later the same friend told me he was borrowing money from his father. This stunned me. Borrow money? I wouldn’t “borrow” money from parents. There was one specific instance where he and the parents were arguing. He would use very direct language that made me cringe.
“Come on stop it, dad!” or “Mum you are such a liar!”
I was equally jolted by how his siblings treated us. Everyone gaped at me when I asked his young nieces and nephews to call me Uncle since I was older than them. Of course I was undergoing what is known as “cultural shock”- the stress of being in a different environment other than what you are used to – ultimate divide among societies.
The primary cultural shock was (for me) in Wazungu culture is a disregard of age difference, except for legal matters. Young people speak whichever way they wish to older people- the use of word “Uncle” and “Auntie” which is a kind of substitute to “Shikamoo” common in Swahili and African custom has a different connotation.
Things get worse when it comes to social interaction. If children are being unruly on your street and you wanted them to stop you would not be able to exert the same authority that is common in Africa- by shouting or telling the younger off. Not as a stranger. In fact it could be dangerous. Cases of adults being attacked by youths or even arrested are common. Children can call the police if they feel there is verbal or physical force. Similar rules apply to the issue of disciplining. Unlike African culture where a stranger can discipline any child (although the habit is beginning to change in huge cities) - in Uzungu land you would be amazed at how fearless kids are towards adults. Their look has a nonchalant expression that seems to say: “Who are you to tell me anything?”
The whole thing stems from a culture of ageless-ness and regarding age as a meaningless factor.
To be older is looked down and belittled.
Youth, however mediocre or substance -less is applauded in all sectors even politics and show biz. This is for example obvious by the way some of electorate is carried. Young bashful coalition of David Cameron, Nick Clegg and George Osborne contrasts to older generation of previous governments. In showbiz older artists constantly perform cosmetic surgery and Botox implants to appear younger. The whole circus has created a social numbness- a lack of sensitivity for the elderly. News is constantly filled with incidents of old -70 and 80 year plus- women being raped and men being beaten or robbed. Age knows no boundaries. Of course social morality is also influenced by issues like the decline of religious faith. Most recent example is how sick Wazee are treated badly, callously and insensitively by nurses.
No wonder in old peoples’ homes, where the Wazee spend their last years you find most employed carers from Asia, Africa and Latin America cultures where respect of older people is almost natural.
Part of the problem is the progress in healthier lifestyles in developed countries as numbers of Wazee continue to increase. According to US Census over ten years ago, citizens reaching 65 years accounted to 12.5 percent of the population; and estimates project that by the year 2050 older Americans will constitute a quarter of the whole population.
I am always surprised when press commentators, social spokespersons are constantly appealing for better treatment of Wazee and the elderly. Reports of neglect and abuse in hospitals continue to filter through the Media. Sometimes I want to shout that how can you expect social and medical professionals to act differently when the culture does not enforce age respect and morality?
Back in February 2004, I attended a British-Tanzanian business dinner here in London where the guest speaker was former MP and cabinet member,Clare Short (pictured). During her tenure as Minister for International Development Ms Short visited Africa several times. One thing she distinctly remembered and paid compliment that evening was the way African culture has respect for elders, discipline and dignity of men. “Europe is losing all that and has to learn from Africa.”
I wish Ms Short could speak louder.
Also published in Citizen Tanzania-