Africa′s family structure faces massive upheaval | Africa | DW | 06.03.2012
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Africa's family structure faces massive upheaval

Africa's extended family structure, long admired by many, is changing. In the central African country of Cameroon, old people who used to be venerated as a source of wisdom are being left to live alone in poverty.

An African man balances a sack of coal on his head

After a life of hard work, many Africans face poverty and loneliness

Driving through the bustling commercial town of Mbalmayo in Cameroon, it's impossible not to see all the old people sitting outside tumbledown houses.

Nestled into a bend of the Nyong river and surrounded by a rich green forest, Mbalmayo is half an hour away from Cameroon's capital, Yaounde. It's an important center for education.

It's also, as a recent study by the Cameroon-based Ecumenical Service for Peace (SEP) organization found out, a tough place to live if you are old.

Etienne Medjo is one of Mbalmayo's elderly inhabitants. The skinny, grey-haired man looks very tired. And he only has one thought - food.

Medjo has eight children and 21 grandchildren. According to African family traditions, his children or other family members would be expected to take care of him until he dies.

But, as is the case for many of the elderly people living in this area, Medjo was rejected by his family when he retired from his job in the forestry sector.

Medjo has been living on his own in Mbalmayo for more than five years. He blames his children for having lost their traditional African mentality of revering old people.

"Before children were always (with) elderly persons to assist them, and today youth chase us," Medjo said.

Medjo's neighbor, retired nurse Mark Emo, agreed completely and quoted a Cameroonian proverb to make his point.

"For the young to see far, they must stand on the shoulders of the elderly. This does not make any sense anymore," Emo said.

A woman stands outside a dilapidated hut

Living conditions are poor for many of Africa's elderly

Little help

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are 600 million elderly people around the world. This number is expected to double to 1,200 million by 2025.

A staggering four out of five of these elderly people will be living in developing countries, such as Cameroon.

According to SEP's survey of 500 elderly men and women in Mbalmayo, only one in five of them received some kind of support from their families.

To make matters worse, SEP discovered that four out of five elderly people had been working in an informal sector before they retired or became too weak to work.

This means they aren't eligible for any kind of social security payments. And this generation tend to have few savings because they have used their spare cash to educate their children.

As a result, the inhabitants of Mbalmayo, like many of Cameroon's elderly, are facing insecurity, discrimination and hunger.

Sitting in front of a dilapidated timber hut, wondering how her day will end, Mbalmayo inhabitant Ruth Nga said she really needed something to eat straight away.

three young African boys

Who will look after them when they're old?

She sighed and pointed to her hut.

"We need pensions and accommodation. When rain falls, water enters our house through the roof," Nga said.

The Cameroon-based SEP wants to help end such sufferings of old people in Mbalmayo by putting some structure in place to help them die in peace, the organisation's director, Richard Ndi Tantoh said.

"They are people who spent their lives working to build a country," he said. "I don't think it is good for us or for the country to abandon them when they are at old age."

Author: Moki Kindzeka/Asumpta Lattus
Editor: Susan Houlton / rm

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