My New Old Self decided to find out what it’s like to get old in the countryside.
I visited the bucolic Ofafa Valley in South Africa’s province of KwaZulu Natal, described by author Alan Paton in his famous novel.
“There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa.”
– opening lines of Cry the Beloved Country, 1948
Indeed the views are lovely and the air is clean. And the people are poor. Getting old means at least means getting a modest government pension. That monthly amount of only $115 often supports a pensioner’s extended family.
If you want to visit anyone in these hills and valleys, you walk. No matter what your age. This woman, Ngazini Mbatha, is 68.
The word for grandmother is “gogo” in Zulu and many other southern and eastern African languages. The word is commonly used to describe any older woman. Nearly all these gogos come on foot for their monthly support group meeting at a local community hall. They carry sticks to help them climb up and down the hills, and umbrellas to protect them from the fierce southern African sun.
Like many African women, Buyelaphi Ngcobo protects her skin by using a traditional sunscreen. Every morning she makes a mask from clay and water and puts it on her face, and washes it off at the end of each day. Like commercial sunblocks, this kaolite clay contains metal oxides which provide UV protection.
That orange vest is for Buyelaphi’s job at the side of the road, to make sure that drivers see her. She still cuts grass and weeds as part of a government public works project.
These gogos never want to miss their daily soap opera. Not on TV but on the popular state-run Zulu language radio station. So they sit together and listen to the latest episode on the FM radio in their cellphones.
If you ever doubted the statistic that more people in Africa have access to a cellphone network than to electricity, piped water or a health clinic, please note that all but one of these gogos has a cellphone. Not a smartphone but a basic model you can buy in the nearest town of Ixopo for as little as $12, or even an old one sold second-hand. Which does the job, because what does a gogo do with her phone anway?
These gogos say they hardly ever make calls. They just try to answer when the phone rings. One of their greatest frustrations is missing a call. Then they have to wait to be phoned back. They don’t write texts for a range of reasons, from poor eyesight to illiteracy. Most of their calls come from their children, wanting to hear how their children are. Gogos living in huts with grandchildren – that’s a common household out here.
While nearly all these gogos have phones, not all their homes have power. Even if their villages are on the grid, many can’t afford to pay for electricity. In South Africa’s cities people are complaining about “load-shedding” by the state power commission. Out here black-outs can go unnoticed.
To make fires for cooking and heating, many of these gogos head into the forests to fetch wood. Every day. As they’ve done since they were young girls. Gogos are good at carrying – heavy things on their heads, grandchildren on their backs.
This gogo is carrying a huge log – ironically, as she walks under power lines and past a pylon. With this hands-free method she also carries an axe, plus a panga, the kind of broad-bladed knife a gogo can use for chopping firewood.
I have enough trouble carrying a cord of wood into the house from the car, while these gogos are moving around the countryside with logs and knives. Then changing clothes and heading into the valley under their umbrellas to drink tea and listen to the radio with their friends.
I salute the fortitude of these gogos. I admire the fabulous fabric of their pinafores. And I kept wondering what made them walk through the heat, up and down those hills, on the day that I visited. Why were the gogos so keen to get together in that community hall?
They told me that they came to talk about their personal problems. The facilitator of the gogos’ support group, Jane Nxasana, helped found this community development organization 15 years ago, when HIV and AIDS were raging through the Ofafa Valley, claiming lives and leaving orphans for gogos to care for. Jane volunteered at first and now works as a Manager and Home Based Care Co-ordinator.
The name of the group is Woza Moya. Woza is Zulu for come and Moya is a word with many meanings: wind, air, breath, spirit. So it’s an expression that beckons the spirit. Jane showed me these guidelines that are used in running the monthly support group meetings.
This approach to sharing problems is a mix of a traditional African circle with the mindfulness practice that many in the community have learned from the nearby Buddhist Retreat Centre which launched Woza Moya. The gogos sit in a circle, a source of energy and wisdom that represents completeness, and open themselves to reflection.
“Woza Moya is a women-led organisation, with Sue, Jane and Benedicta at the helm. Maybe this has led to our culture of reflection, mindfulness and Ubuntu. Reflective practice is done in various forms at regular intervals at all levels within the organisation. Two researchers in psychology and health care communication visited Woza Moya. Dr Neil Prose from Duke University Medical Center in the US and Dr Thirusha Naidu from the University of KwaZulu-Natal came to Woza Moya to understand more about our reflective practices, the check-in circle that we do every morning before we begin work, and also our regular support groups. Drs Prose and Naidu believe that this unique Woza Moya approach is a big reason why so many of our care workers are able to accomplish so much in the community and to remain working at Woza Moya for such a long time.”
“Ubuntu” is an African concept of human kindness, from the word in many Bantu languages for “person”. It is often translated by the saying: “A person is a person because of other people.”
These gogos taught me that gogos are gogos because of other gogos. I saw them emerge from their meeting looking happy, calm – and pleased to have had a (free) meal together. Then the gogos walked home.
Check out this video shot featuring the “Sock Monkeys” that these gogos make by hand in one of Woza Moya’s community projects.
Gogos in Africa are not the only ones who feel marginalised by growing old in rural areas. See this comment from an older UK resident who complained about the “distinctly urban feel” of most information about aging.
“Aging in rural and provincial Britain poses very different challenges (isolation, transportation and lack of public services amongst them) and it is important these challenges are also recorded and addressed.”
– Nesta innovation charity site, UK
It seems that, wherever you are in the world, there are challenges to growing old in the countryside. My view, after visiting the gogos of Ofafa, is that “It’s hard out here for a gogo!”
(The phrase “It’s hard out here” is from the Hip-Hop song “It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp”, by Three 6 Mafia which won an Oscar in 2006 for Best Original Song in the film, Hustle and Flow. English pop star Lily Allen’s hit, “Hard out Here” is a feminist critique of the entertainment industry.)