NAIROBI // It is known as the greying of Kenya. As this east African powerhouse develops a robust economy, a burgeoning middle class is starting to live longer into old age. And the growing population of seniors is creating problems that African countries have not had to deal with in the past.
In traditional African societies, elders are revered and are usually cared for by their grown children into old age. But as the quality of life in Kenya improves, more people are living longer. The country currently has 1.2 million people above the age of 60. The number is expected to reach 2.2 million in the next 10 years, according to the latest government population figures. Modern Kenyans are beginning to place ageing parents in the care of a growing number of retirement homes, something that was unheard of a generation ago. With eight per cent of all adults in Kenya infected with Aids, the number of deaths from the epidemic has also left some elderly without offspring to care for them.
"The majority of older people in Kenya are faced with a host of problems that vary from economic, health, social and other personal problems," Gondi Olum, a development expert, wrote in a report for the United Nations' department of economic and social affairs. Last week, the Kenyan government introduced a national policy on older persons and ageing to make their life easier. The plans not only include subsidised housing and food but access to health care and social security for elderly people.
Julliet Kola, the head of the governmental social welfare programme, said the government had previously "focused on the youth and ignored the older people". The policy would also provide elderly people with employment opportunities, a recognition on the part of the government that people can contribute to society in old age. "Age limit ought not to be a deterrent," the policy says. "It is the willingness and productivity of an individual that matters."
Once given the respect of chiefs and sages, the elderly in Kenya have now become the target of thieves, con men and swindlers. A shocking amount of elderly women have been the victims of rape. Many old people in urban areas have been cast off into slums and live out their remaining years in poverty. The national policy recognises the social problems faced by Kenya's greying population. "Older persons are often accused of witchcraft and are physically assaulted," the policy says. "Property belonging to the elderly is often stolen and financial institutions often refuse to offer them credit."
Kenya is also promoting education for seniors. In 2003, the government introduced free primary education for all ages. Kimani Maruge, then 84, made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest man to start primary school. A few commercial retirement homes have sprung up in Kenya in recent years, but most are run by charities. The Nyumba ya Wazee, or house of the old people, based in Nairobi, is run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic organisation that survives on donations.
Before the charity took them in, its 65 residents were living in poverty without family care or government pensions, said Sister Helen Creed, who runs the home. "The old people need pensions," she said. "The fact that the government is starting to think about the old people is a step in the right direction." Though the government says it is committed to helping the elderly, some of the residents of the home are not convinced. Joseph Mina, 72, who lost a leg fighting the British during the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s, said the government was corrupt and that the money would not reach the elderly in need.
"I don't trust the government," he said. "They don't remember the poor man." Raphael Kanyanya, who is toothless, nearly blind and claims he is 109 years old, is visited by his son Daniel three times a week. "I do not have the means to take care of him," said Daniel, 57. "If he wasn't in this home, I wouldn't know how he could survive." Raphael fought alongside the British in the Second World War as part of the King's African Rifles. He also worked as a police officer and a driver before retiring and moving to the home 20 years ago. Despite years of public service, he said he did not have a government pension. "I worked in the armed forces and the police but I never received anything from the government," he said.