Keywords: grandmother, elderly, Africa, civic engagement, agency
One of the perplexing issues today is the social exclusion and often outright discrimination against older persons, euphemistically called “seniors.” This is the case particularly for women who endure life-long exclusion, discrimination and exploitation due to patriarchal and sexist social arrangements. In their senior years their vulnerability becomes even more palpable.
However, beyond being victims of various intersecting social injustices, including ageism which adds to their vulnerability as they age, such older women’s dignity and agency may be dimmed but not extinguished by the various forces against them. Across cultures, time and space, they have shown a remarkable resilience and ethical intentionality that deserves recognition, support and engagement.
From Africa, for example we hear of grandmothers (a.k.a. Cucu in Kikuyu or Pim In Dholuo) who end up doing a second shift in parenting when they take up the care of their grandchildren when their own children die or are incapacitated, for example by the dreaded HIV/AIDS.
While in many instances the inheritance of second shift parenting by grandmothers is often serendipitous, rather unexpected and undesired, the grandmothers (Cucus or Pims ) take on these roles with a deep-seated moral voluntariness and compassion, expecting and receiving no reward , not even the much needed support in their work . Often theirs is the proverbial situation of having to make bricks without straw. Theirs is often purely a labor of love.
In one specific case, efforts to offer children orphaned by HIV/AIDS a supportive system designed to enhance their holistic healing, an institution called, Nyumbani (meaning At Home) enlists many elder women to act as surrogate parents. These women are still socially active long beyond the biblical three score plus ten years, while elsewhere their age-mates may be expected to fade away from active social lives, moving progressively towards “assisted senior living” and eventually “nursing homes.”
That these cucus are thus involved is not surprising considering that in the traditional African setting advanced age did not disqualify one from being an active member of the society. Strictly speaking there was no retirement. Grandmothers continued to play a positive role in the family, “doting” grandmothers but also active in the moral and spiritual formation of the younger generation, including those beyond their immediate family.
Nostalgically describing the role of Pim, cultural analyst Atieno Adhiambo reports for example that among the Luo the grandmother’s hut, Siwindhe, was a center for spiritual and moral formation and was recognized as such. The hut was a place where “much of the critical social intelligence of the Luo world was imparted by the Pim to those with little experience or knowledge of it.”
I write this commentary concerned by the seeming erosion of this vital role of senior women and to affirm that contrary to stereotypes, many women beyond 60 years of age are active in self-defined ways .
Despite a lackluster affirmation and often outright disdain for their agency, older women in Africa and beyond continue to exercise their agency in remarkable ways that make a huge difference to many, if only we could stop and notice. Such is the case for example of Margo M. who recently turned 80 and has spent the last 10 years since her retirement at 68, volunteering each summer to tutor Kenyan high school girls in maths. She also mobilized resources and people around her to build a school where the girls get excellent all-round education despite their impoverished contexts. She is indeed a grandmother without borders.
Writing on Mother’s Day in 2019, I am palpably aware of the many women like Margo or the Cucu of Nyumbani whose compassionate care and love is intentionally wielded to make positive change for many in their neighbourhood. I celebrate their agency, ethical intentionality and practical engagement with social issues including education of girls, and holistic care of those living with HIV/AIDS – a care which is mostly unacknowledged, often ignored and hardly ever supported.
In concluding this commentary, I find the lyrics of Holly Nears’ Song: “A Thousand Grandmothers” truly pertinent. “Such grandmothers”Holly sings, “will lend a loving ear, form a loving circle around the wounded and contain the brutal beasts of war and sing a lullaby much stronger than bombs.”
The grandmothers mays seem too soft to handle challenges, but they have a powerful force, the power of love. I concur with Holly when she says that we need to pray for a thousand grandmothers (and more), to volunteer (their compassionate and practical wisdom). Pray,that instead of being “tucked deep out of sight,” they will bring their power (of love ) to bear wherever it is most needed.
 See Adhiambo and Cohen eds. “The Powers of Women” In Siaya : The Historical Anthropology of an African Landscape, Ohio University Press,1989: 93
 See Margo’s story in her Ted Talk where explains her intentionality and ethical considerations that have shaped her career as grandma without borders here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1koWJ66vE14
 The director of Nyumbani is award winning Sr Mary Owen who continues her work and labor of love and at 80 plus is herself one of the thousands of wise, compassionate and engaged Cucus in ways beyond the biological ones. For details of Nyumbani and its Cucu par excellence, Sr Mary Owens, see the interview here: https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/people/mary-owens