law neglects the old

Kenya is ripe for a law to protect senior citizens.

‘Kindly find time and let me know when we can talk,’ Johnny received a text message from his elder brother known to the family as Nyagilo. Johnny did not hesitate, he put everything on hold and picked his phone to the far end corner of his office, dialed his brother’s number for a long phone conversation. At that point, I left his office to attend to a client. I felt he needed time before we got to our normal tête-à-tête.  

After a week of absence, I met him at a serene joint in Mombasa. He narrated the content of his earlier conversations.  His uncle, Auka, who had left his village in 1978, had resurfaced. At the point when he left, he was married and had a son. The son passed away, and so did the wife. He basically had no nuclear family. Johnny’s family seemed to be the closest.

The report to Nyagilo indicated that the old man had been unwell and was admitted at a missionary hospital. No one was willing to pay his bills or take up any responsibilities concerning the old man. The Good Samaritan who had volunteered to cater for his basic needs was bolting out; he couldn’t handle it any more. He therefore traced Nyagilo, whom he considered a closer and more mature nephew to the old man, Auka.

Upon receipt of the information, Nyagilo sought assistance from people he thought would support the process of bringing their uncle back home. Even though he was aware that his sick uncle would need a place to live, he predicted resistance. He thought it wise to prepare the ground for reception of Auka. He had to engage his elderly parents, aunts, uncles and all close stakeholders because there lay a sustainable plan for the elderly man. Lucky enough, his land was intact despite the fact that their homestead was ravaged. Everyone had left; the majority had passed on, especially the ones he knew.

 Nyagilo and Johnny had a lot to settle, from his bludgeoning hospital bill, to clothing him, to finding any property he could have possessed in the ‘foreign’ land. They still had to transport him home and build him a house to live in. Nyagilo counted on Johnny and other younger cousins to assist in mobilizing resources for the process.

 Nyagilo narrated how they explored several ways of resource mobilization from close relatives to reach their target. They used social media, opened a Facebook page, WhatsApp group and email accounts, all in attempts to reach out to the target audience. ‘It was like a typical Kenyan funeral where you have to reach out to people. Some were not convinced while others wondered why they had to attend to businesses of people who had squandered their all,’ Johnny adds, ‘for purposes of evidence, I was compelled to post pictures of the man and the progressing work to win their confidence’.

 But Johnny seemed to understand their reactions, for any typical Kenyan, it was going to be difficult to understand why they would raise money for a person they had not seen. Majority of Johnny’s target group were born after Auka left his village. They had just heard about him.

Auka own actions were telling though. He knew all the lineage names of the community. Though ailing, he was hilarious and mirrored a quite clear memory of the local setting. He recounted a number of stories well recognised by many older members of his society.

This narration reminded me of the Stanley Mathenge Muiruri dummy, the Kenyan Mau Mau hero whose whereabouts remains a mystery to date. When Narc Government came to power sometimes in 2003, some people in Government imported (Waiganjo style) a peasant from Ethiopia, Lema Ayanu, claiming he was the true Mathenge. The true Mathenge was a freedom fighter who had reportedly disappeared from Aberdares Forest at the height of the independence war. Some papers have reported that he fled to Ethiopia after fallout with Dedan Kimathi.

Years later, a minister of the then Government produced DNA test results of Mr Ayanu in Parliament rebutting any claims of relation to the veteran freedom fighter.

Newspapers reported that the government spent almost Kshs. 300,000 to pay for Mr Ayanu’s accommodation and air ticket from Addis Ababa to Nairobi to attend Madaraka Day celebrations at the Nyayo National Stadium. Auka’s case could seem like Mathenge’s dummy story for people born later.

At last, Nyagilo, Johnny and their cousins brought home their uncle, built him a house and convinced their relatives in the village to take care of him, the majority of who were sceptical about the whole idea in the first place. Courtesy of their plans and efforts, Johnny confirms that a year later, the old man is stronger and happier.

 At the time of his arrival, the elderly man was not just ailing; he was partially blind and frail. Rumoured to be in his early eighties, not even proper medication and returning to life would secure him income for self-sustenance. He therefore became the responsibility of the community to date. Jonny affirms that Nyagilo follows his progress keenly hence the confidence that the old man is doing well.

Despite the sad tales of some social difficulties, Nyagilo affirms that his society still understands the beauty of communal cooperation. Their social fabric is rather intact.

 Many villages in Kenya are faced with similar problems affecting the elderly people. The problems are not only unique to individual elderly persons. Institutions set up to address the challenges, mostly charitable organizations need state support.

 In Mombasa for instance, there are two common destinations for the elderly persons: Mji Wa Salama, and the Little sisters of the poor. Mji Wa Salama is based in Tudor, within Mvita Constituency next to the Chief’s office in Tudor. It is a Public institution for the elderly.

 I am more awake to the brain child of Saint Jeanne Jugan, the Little Sisters of the Poor. Also known as Sister Mary of the Cross, the Saint was a French Woman National who became a Catholic nun. She founded the idea of Little Sisters of the poor, commonly known in Kenya as Nyumba Ya Wazee, to care for the needs of the many impoverished elderly persons. The idea traversed the world and today, the Little sisters of the poor have operations in over 31 countries on Earth.

 Here in Kenya, there are two centres, one in Mombasa – Tudor and another in Nairobi opposite Kasarani Stadium. The facilities are quite comfortable places to see ones days in life. As a young man, I did voluntary work at the Mombasa Centres while on University vacations. The passion was awesome. It is the only work that took me to Kongowea public Market to beg, proudly. The culture was coined in the practice of the Saint. The institutions have passed core traditions of the founder to date in a bid to retain its identity. The others include the evangelical counsels, vows of chastity for the nuns, humble mien and obedience. Most significantly, hospitality is emphasised.

Visit to the facility

On Sunday 4th August 2016, I visited the Mombasa home. Whenever I return to the place, my spirit of service is elevated. The only thing that turns me down is the news that one or two of them have passed away.

 The home is managed by a person titled, Mother Superior. This time, I met a different one; they always get transferred from one country to another. I introduced myself and after talking to my friends, we had time to share with the Mother the affairs of the home. They had huge power bills. Water bills were also increasing.

 You see in there, they do so much with power, water and gas. For purposes of efficiency, their kitchen is modern. They use gas and electric power. The elderly have to bathe with warm water, every morning and evening. Light has to be constantly on, 24 hours, for purposes of security. This being a catholic centre, the church is often lit. They have a diesel generator on standby for their refrigerators and other delicate machines. Their clothes and beddings have to be kept clean. Because of their numbers; a washing machine is their best option. I may need to mention here that the elderly persons change clothes and beddings quite often. To limit chances of disease outbreaks, good sanitation is important. Besides the above, they have a morgue facility. Water and power are key resources that they cannot do without. Unfortunately, the taxman knows no boundary or hospitality.

 In the spirit of Saint Jeanne Jugan’s vision, they have maintained the spirit of service to the poor. Their main support comes from the community. Certain private entities and individuals support their services. They, for instance pay their employees, who provide the vital services to the elders. The nuns however do the work as part of their community service.

 You notice that the state, through various institutions of Governance may make life easy for the homes. That is yet to take shape. They had visited the County Government of Mombasa and were promised certain unspecified support. The County Secretary of Mombasa, who just like me has a history with the home, and is following up on the matter.

 Problems affecting the elderly

 Ageing is a natural process, inevitable to all human beings in our life cycle. It brings with it a host of challenges commonly engineered by the changes in body, mind, thought process and the living patterns. In essence, it refers to a decline of the functional capacity of the organs of the human body, mostly due to physiological transformation. The above does not implies that everything gets dilapidated with age.

 In most cases the elderly face economic problems, physical and physiological problems, which include health and medical problems, nutritional deficiency, and the problem of inadequate housing etc. and psycho-social problems which cover problems related with their psychological and social maladjustment as well as the problem of elderly abuse.

 In the two narrations of Auka Yamo and Little Sisters of the poor, we notice the matters unique to Kenyan senior citizens.

 Efforts of the State

The State has done well to introduce Cash Transfer for the Elderly Persons. The idea was borne by the coalition Government out of the challenges affecting the elderly Persons in Kenya.  The overall management and coordination of the fund rests at the national level and cascades to the location through the district levels.

There have been varying challenges though. Calls have been made to strengthen accountability and complement existing programs and services. The management structures, particularly at implementation level should include wide representation from line ministries, the community and Community Based Organizations and above all, show equity to the entire nation.

 The Kenyan Constitution as promulgated in 2010 defines old persons as people of age 60 and above. The program however targets persons of age 65 and above. This discrepancy ought to be addressed. According to the 2009 Kenya Population and Housing Census, there were 1.3 million people above 65 years of age, 20.6 million are of age 15-64, meaning a handful will be crossing the 65 age yearly. Considering the constant population increase, the number of those aging is expected to increase significantly by 2030.

 There needs to be a committed and sustainable system to maintain the flow and productively engage the elderly persons amidst us. There needs to be structures which ensure that the systems are working. Kenya having been listed as a middle income economy, a number of people will live longer than the current age. Their future must be the State’s business.

 It is also noteworthy that we have made commitments to addressing issues of the elderly through national legal and policy frameworks. The Constitution for instance asserts the “right for every person to social security” and “binds the State to provide social security for them. There is the social protection policy passed in 2011 which emphasizes the need for social protection in old age through either non-contributory benefits focused on reducing poverty and vulnerability, or contributory benefits aimed at maintaining the income of individuals.

 Our senior citizens constitute a precious pool of human resource because of the gift of knowledge of various sorts, varied experiences and deep insights. May be they have formally retired, but majority of them are physically fit and mentally alert. Hence, given an appropriate opportunity, they are in a position to make significant contribution to the socio-economic development of their nation. Those aside, they remain human beings who must be treated with dignity and honour.

 Besides the constitutional provision and the policy document, there’s no law to effect the constitutional provisions and matters of the elderly.

 How do we compare with other Jurisdictions?

 South Africa

Besides their constitutional provisions on the rights of the elderly, The Older Persons Act aims to alleviate the plight of older citizens in South Africa by setting up a framework for their empowerment and protection. It promotes and maintains the rights, status, well being, safety and security of older persons.

 India

In India, there is the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007. The legislation was enacted in 2007 to provide more effective provision for maintenance and welfare of parents and senior citizens. The Act makes it a legal obligation for children and heirs to provide maintenance to senior citizens and parents, by monthly allowance.

 China

China has an Act of Parliament known as the Elderly Rights Law. It deals with the growing problem of lonely elderly people by ordering adult children to visit their ageing parents.

The law says adults should care about their parents’ spiritual needs and “never neglect or snub elderly people”.

 With more members of Parliament in Kenya after the promulgation of the current constitution, primarily mandated to legislate, perhaps somebody owes it to Kenyans to spot the gap and do the work. Legislate on matters of the elderly.

BY ZEDDY ADIKA

This article appears in our newsletter, The Deuteronomy Vol 6, Issue 2 of September 9th, 2016.

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