Free-market Africa's age of disrespect: Traditional care of the elderly is declining as Western ways take their toll. Karl Maier reports from Accra

AFRICA used to be one of the world's best places to grow old. Advanced age was regarded as a blessing and the elderly revered as sacred, the crucial link between the living and the ancestors, the holders of wisdom and culture.

Expressions for the elderly in West African languages often mean 'he or she who knows' or 'he or she who has vision'. Talk of the Western practice of placing ageing relatives in nursing homes makes most Africans shudder with horror. The duty of the young is spelt out in a Ghanaian proverb: 'If your elders take care of you while cutting your teeth, you must in turn take care of them while they are losing theirs.'

But today, as with so much of African society, times are changing - and for the elderly, radically so. The growing influence of Western-style education, free- market economics and accelerated migration is putting Africa's traditional extended families under strain and people's ability to care for the elderly in jeopardy.

'During our childhood in Ghana, we stayed in the family house, so we helped the aged, we did everything for them,' said Veronica Ayisi, a 55-year-old volunteer worker for Help Age Ghana. 'But now, because of 'civilisation', all their children have travelled, some have married and gone away and there is no one there to help them.'

Because of high birth rates and short life expectancies, the elderly still constitute a small proportion of Africa's population and the vast majority of them live in the countryside. But with population growth tipped to slow and medical care improving, the percentage of old people in Africa is expected to rise rapidly in the first quarter of the 21st century. And African families and society are increasingly poorly equipped to deal with them.

Part of the blame lies with Africa's gradual integration into the world economy. Rising foreign debts and flagging economies are forcing states to impose structural adjustment programmes in an effort to please foreign creditors and to attract investment. As a result, unemployment and prices have soared.

'The salaries people are getting do not keep them going; neither themselves nor their own immediate family,' said Nana Apt, a professor of sociology at the University of Ghana and president of the African Gerontological Society. 'So that now it becomes easier for children to say 'Look, I can't help the elderly', because they themselves cannot even cope.'

Dr Apt's point was clear to see during a chat with Emmanuel Anum Tetteh, an elderly Ghanaian man whose severely swollen legs appeared to indicate that he had developed a bad case of elephantiasis. He was living with his brother and niece in central Accra, but there was not enough money to take him to hospital. 'The niece does not have enough money,' said Ms Ayisi. 'She has no permanent job, she has children and she must look after her father too. So she does not have enough money to feed them and to take him to the hospital.'

The worsening plight of the elderly can be seen in the streets of cities all across Africa. What would have been unthinkable just a decade ago has become a fact of daily life. Growing numbers of old people have become beggars or homeless derelicts, wandering around in apparent confusion at the modern buildings sprouting up and the cars and lorries whizzing by them. The skills and knowledge that once earned them respect and esteem in the traditional rural setting are no longer relevant in the cash economy.

The cultural gap between the young, educated by Western-style schools, and the elderly, linked to tradition, is widening. Even the advent of democracy is undermining traditional political systems in which the elderly played dominant roles.

Akuoko Dokwi, 70, said that when she and her twin sister, Akwele, grew up near a cemetery in Achimota, a heavily populated suburb of Accra, there were no schools, no cars or lorries and very few houses.

Akwele and Akuoko seem bewildered by the world around them. They have no relatives to look after them. Akwele's two children died in their infancy. The women still live in their father's house, which is crumbling and leaked whenever it rained until Help Age Ghana put a new roof on it. They have a few chickens, but they must be kept in the house because of thieves in the area. 'When I get up in the morning, I sweep the house, clean the chicken coop and everything,' said Akuoko. 'Our rooms are full of mosquitos and we don't even have enough money for food. If it was not for the Roman Catholic Father and our friends from church, it would be very difficult.'

Dr Apt believes that the worsening crisis of the elderly in Africa will not go away and that African governments must take action now, by using measures such as tax breaks to help families fulfil their traditional role of caring for the aged. 'The wheels have turned and there is no turning back,' she said. 'We can still support family members to look after their elderly, because people are emotionally attached; people feel guilty that they are not able to look after their elderly.'

For Ms Ayisi, it is question of getting back to basics. 'If you have children and look after them, it is a must that they have to look after you,' she said. 'Parents should bring forth two or three children and look after them properly. Then, in the future, they can look after you.'

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
Australia vs New Zealand live
cricket Follow over-by-over coverage as rivals New Zealand and Australia face off
News
Zayn has become the first member to leave One Direction. 'I have to do what feels right in my heart,' he said
peopleWe wince at anguish of fans, but his 1D departure shows the perils of fame in the social media age
Life and Style
Researchers found that just 10 one-minute swill-and-spit sessions are enough to soften tooth enamel and make teeth vulnerable to erosion
health
News
i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
The Regent Street Cinema’s projection room in the 1920s
film
News
Leah Devine is only the ninth female to have made the Young Magician of the Year final since the contest began more than 50 years
peopleMeet the 16-year-old who has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year
News
Jonathan Anderson was born in Northern Ireland but now based between London, where he presents a line named JW Anderson
peopleBritish designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing