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Ageing, Retirement and Activities in Yaoundé – by Patrick Awondo

By Shireen Walton, on 29 August 2019

During my 16 months of ethnographic work in Yaoundé, I have been investigating the process of ageing in the digital era. As part of the research, I spent time with middle-aged people, but also retired older persons in order to try and obtain a clear understanding of their daily lives and routines The interviews, therefore, always included exploration of informants’ activities.

The daily activities of my research participants can be divided into 3 categories. There are those related to professional work for people still in service or who are forced to continue producing either to survive or to help their families. Then there are the activities that could be described as routine for retirees for those who no longer work and enjoy a retirement pension. These activities vary between associative and community involvement, commitment to civic life, sport and religious engagements. Finally, there are activities related to the displacement of living spaces that retirement imposes. In this sense, the “return to the village” is a major fact although complex to grasp. In Yaoundé, there is indeed a real tension between the ideal to return to the village, the materiality of life in these often rural areas with their deficiency in basic infrastructures and the relative comfort to which survey participants are accustomed. This makes this ideal an ambivalent reality.

Overall, informants are concerned about the occupation of their time in a practical perspective fulfilling several functions: first, a routine function capable of filling up days that can be long and boring, especially if they live alone or without immediate family present or nearby. These routine activities are thus varied and embrace the playful dimensions of life, for example watching television. It can also include participation in community life, religious and various activities. In this same fun life, the uses of the smartphone and other similar devices like the laptop should be considered. There is no clear break between these internet-related activities, for example watching and sharing videos and those related to television. Then, there are the “productive” activities, which the participants in the study consider as generating some benefits for themselves and for their close relatives.

A 64-year-old retired woman, a former primary school teacher organises an informal crèche in her home to “help neighbours who have young children who do not know what to do”. These children from the neighborhood are grouped with her grandchildren (3 in total), which her 3 sons and 3 daughters entrust her regularly when they are busy. It is an activity underlines the informant, « that allows to extend her work but also to help her family because the nurseries for children are expensive in Yaoundé when one is lucky to find one near home. “; this dimension of dual utility is fundamental for this informant as for other people met. Admittedly, the mobility and health variable and the financial capacity to sustainably extend activities such as this informant are needed.

Finally, there are a range of activities related to physical and mental health, and to the maintenance or construction of a social and community network. Staying active to stay healthy is the watchword for study participants, especially among public sector retirees and former formal sector workers. In this area, walking, sport, outings and meetings within sports groups that extend to associative activities (tontines), volunteering, and strong community participation are central. However, it is necessary to take into account the complexity of the life trajectories of individuals, and to keep in mind that there is not always a clear cutoff between being retired and the cessation of activities. Just as the retirement activities are not to be considered as exclusively new or in complete disruption to the professional life of the participants in the study.

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