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Rescuing the elderly from agonies of ridicule

Written by  Memory Kutengule
Elizabeth John inside the house where she spends her night Elizabeth John inside the house where she spends her night

BLANTYRE, June 04, 2018: Decent life, access to basic social amenities and freedom from accusations of witchcraft practices is what everyone would long for especially in their old age.

For 90-year-old Elizabeth John from Pitankola Village, Traditional Authority Mpama in Chiradzulu district, such a beauty to life deserted her long time ago. Since turning 60, her life has been deplorable. She lives in a small and dilapidated house that profusely leaks whenever it rains.

A ragged mat is the one that offers a comfort of sleep to her frail body that largely lack any form of nourishment.

“I usually sleep on an empty stomach when my granddaughter fails to bring food in the house,” John says. Her granddaughter is 34-year-old Flora Mbewe, a single mother of two who relies on piece works in other people’s fields to earn an income.

The misery of the old woman’s life is compounded by the community decision to isolate her from the rest of the society.

Accusations of practicing witchcraft and use of charms to kill people including her own children are the everyday insults directed at her.

Growing old comes with other challenges such as rheumatism and chronic illnesses, making it difficult for the elderly to continue carrying out productive activities.

At her age, John is not able to cook, walk, bath or indeed fetch food for herself. Her only two surviving children from the six she bore rarely support her.

Currently, she needs a better home, food and a wheelchair to support her daily life.

Old John is one of the 800,000 elderly people in Malawi who are under the affliction of poverty, abuses and accusations. Rosaliya Wadi, 73, of Njelema Village in TA Mpama and Eneless Katembo, 87, from Njelema and Pitankola villages respectively in Traditional Authority Mpama, Chiradzulu also have similar stories.

The challenges that the elderly face seem to receive inadequate attention.That is why some players are moving in to bail some of the elderly people out of the trap.

A group of women hosting a radio programme called Amayi Takatani on Ufulu Radio is using the broadcasting platform to bring to light the predicament of vulnerable populations in society.

The story of Elizabeth John is one case in point. Esnart Makuya, a member of Amayi Takatani programme brought the issue to this platform.

Having learnt about John, Makuya mobilized resources through the programme to help the old woman in October last year. Three months later, John received support in the form of food and plans to buy iron sheets for roofing her grass-thatched house.

Chairperson for the southern region chapter of Amayi Takatani Lillian Banda said they decided to come to John’s rescue because they were moved by her situation.

“She was going through a lot of things and when we heard her story, we thought of mobilizing resources within the group and outside,” Banda said. Through their initiative, the group has managed to thatch John’s house while waiting for the procurement of iron sheets.

The group also provided her with basic necessities worth K250, 000. Although they provided the items to the old woman, Banda admitted that providing materials is not enough in ending the ridicule John and other elderly people receive in society.

“There is a need to sensitize people in respecting the rights and dignity of the elderly,” she said. Executive director of Malawi Network of Older Persons’ Organization (MANEPO) Andrew Kavala believes that a sustainable way of ensuring that people enjoy life even in their old age lies in having an administrative arrangement to support their needs.

“It is high time Malawi had a sustainable and secured inclusive old age pension scheme to ensure income security for the elderly people.

“Such an arrangement would effectively address most of challenges elderly people face,” Kavala said. The country’s leadership has also taken a front seat in condemning violent and brutal acts against the elderly based on unnecessary beliefs such as witchcraft and ‘blocking rains’.

President Professor Arthur Peter Mutharika has repeatedly warned against any form of violence directed towards the elderly He calls for Malawians to take interest in uplifting the welfare of the elderly.

In the State of the Nation Address during the opening of the 2018/2019 budget sitting of parliament, Mutharika unveiled government’s plans to roll out a pension scheme to eradicate social and economic hardships the elderly face.

The leadership has set the tone in improving the welfare of the elderly and it is hopeful that many players will come in to assist in the same.

A universal pension piloted across the Malawian boarder in Katete, Zambia was found to reduce accusations of witchcraft with the elderly seen as an asset by the community rather than a burden. MANEPO’s Andrew Kavala believes the presence of this pension scheme in Malawi would be a big step towards improving the welfare of the elderly.

“They deserve the best. Their later years in life should be defined with dignity than ridicule,” Kavala says.

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