By Neville Mukendi
In many parts of the world, white hair, a symbol of old age, is considered a blessing and a reward for a life lived with integrity. This makes men and women living in the Third Age worthy of particular respect and attention from younger people. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Kinshasa, where the elderly are rejected by their children and grandchildren.
The frequent deaths of people in a family, especially when young, is often used as a pretext for elder abuse, especially by young people, a trend seen all over Kinshasa.
“Aging without the means to take care of yourself in your last days is horrible,” says Koko Mujinga (Grand-mère Mujinga), who is mocked regularly in her own neighbourhood. “Today’s children lack respect. Some insult us in the street. They say we’ve passed our sell-by date.”
“It’s happened many times that I’ve walked to church with my walking stick and children on the street make fun of me. They ask me if I’m going to hit someone. It’s upsetting but there’s nothing I can do.”
Mujinga adds that the children are encouraged in their behaviour by their parents who do nothing when she tries to tell them of the bad behaviour.
“As soon as I step into someone’s house to tell them about their children’s bad behaviour, the parents chase me out like I’m garbage and insult me,” said Mujinga.
“Parents aren’t much better than their children,” agrees Toutou Kapombe, who is over 80-years-old and lives with his son. “I don’t even feel comfortable in my own son’s home. Him, his wife and his children accuse me of witchcraft. I eat after everyone’s done serving themselves.”
“Every morning my son asks me when I’m going to die so he can be done with me.”
African tradition dictates that the elderly person is the source of all wisdom and that one should want them near oneself. What is at the root of this change in attitudes? In the past, you used to see men and women in Kinshasa proudly living with their parents and treating them in the same way they treat their children. It used to be a source of pride.
Poverty, witchcraft and old age
Lucie, who lives in Mombele, believes her grandmother is at the root of her bad luck. “My mother’s mother is so old; it’s strange that she’s still alive,” said Lucie. She believes her grandmother has to die for things to get back on track.
“It’s clear that there’s an evil force behind what’s going on. We’re so young so why are our futures so dim?” asked Lucie.
Robert Nzuzi, an unemployed recent graduate, agrees. “It’s witchcraft, when an old person refuses to pass away while young children are dying in droves,” said Nzuzi. “These kids who are dying are the sacrifices keeping the old people alive. That’s the case with my grandfather.”
It’s not just young people who abuse the elderly – often parents take part as well. “It was a living hell when my father-in law, a real witch, came to stay with us,” said Madame Belinda. “My husband and I ended up kicking him out the house for the sake of our home.”
Allegations of witchcraft have increased as poverty has spread in Kinshasa. According to a psychologist who spoke off-the-record, those who live in miserable conditions often have feelings of resentment, distrust, envy, hate and anger. Among those who feel weak and vulnerable are the elderly, children and the disabled and they’re often the scapegoats when something goes wrong in a family. This is made worse by con artists posing as religious men who take advantage of naive people seeking comfort in difficult situations.
Elder abuse, a form of involuntary manslaughter
The abuse of elderly persons is connected to their impending death.
“When a person gets older, they lose their lucidity,” explains psychology professor Joaquim Mukau, who teaches at the Université Pédagogique Nationale. “You’ll see the [elderly] person lose their faculties from time to time. When their behaviour is disparaged, it only weakens them further and leads to senility, which then leads to dementia and eventually shortens their lifespan.”
Mukau concludes that it is in this way that the life of an elderly person is needlessly shortened.
Translation by Pia Bahile