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Circle of life – Ageing in Dar al-Hawa

Maya De Vries Kedem27 October 2020

By Laila Abed Rabho and Maya de Vries

While doing our ethnography in Dar al Hawa for almost two years, one of the songs that kept playing in our heads was Elton John’s “Circle of life”. It is not our intention to compare the ethnographic work to a Disney animation movie. However, when talking to people in Dar al-Hawa, young and old, “the circle of life” was a main concept in people’s lives. This notion is deeply embedded in everyday life, in terms of religious practices, beliefs, culture, language and the relationship to older people in the community. But it is not only older people that this notion is important to. We came to learn that the notion, or better said, the perception of “the circle of life” in Dar al-Hawa applies, first and foremost, to the individuals in society who are considered to be more vulnerable, whether it is older people, children, or those on low-incomes. This is also based on one of five foundations of Islam, that of Zakat: giving charity to those who are in need. This practice is one of the duties every Muslim should do.

The concept of “the circle of life” starts with childhood (Al-Tufula in Arabic مرحلة الطفولة  ) and includes several periods, starting with birth and continuing through to childhood, when the person, as a child, is considered to be vulnerable and cannot help others or take care of themselves without the help of another person, especially their mother’s help. The second stage is the youth stage) Al-Shabab in Arabic مرحلة الشباب), which includes adolescence and can be extended until the age of 30, depending on whether the children leave the house or not. Usually, during these stages, the person in question is considered to be at the height of their power, and he or she does not have any major life problems, he or she is ‘accepted’ as someone who can take care of himself as well as others.

Palestinian girl scouts performing at the seniors’ club at Dar al-Hawa. Photo by Maya de Vries.

The third stage is the stage of adulthood, which extends from the age of 30 to about 40,  sometimes 50, and is also considered to be the period of the middle age (in Arabic Kahel كهل), when men and women are starting to feel, to some extent, that they are becoming older. We spoke with several women aged 40 and over and they were pleased to be living in this period, especially because most of them did not suffer from any serious medical conditions. However, an issue they raised in the interviews was that of stress – some of them said that they are suffering from mental stress in their lives.

The fourth stage is the elderly stage, seniority. This is defined by the word Sheikhuha (in Arabic شيخوخة), meaning an old man or an elderly person who is either physically or mentally/cognitively vulnerable or not necessarily physically or mentally vulnerable, but is aged above 60. The word Sheikh has a positive meaning in Arabic and refers to someone who has extensive knowledge, as defined by Muslim scholar Ibn Taymiyyah. So older people are acknowledged as wise individuals that the community should listen to, simply because they have lived longer than us and have more life experience.

The last period, after Sheikhuha , is that of Ardel al-Omar (أرذل العمر), which refers to a period that signals the beginning of dementia, when a person does not know who he or she is anymore. It can be said that the ageing process is divided into two parts: the first is the ageing of the body, which is the beginning of frailty and various diseases, when the person becomes unable to carry out his or her duties and take care of themselves. However, not every person who reaches this stage is unable to take care of themselves, and there are older people who do not need anyone’s help and are able to take care of themselves and are still residing in their homes. They usually live near their family, near to at least one of their children, which means that family care is available, at different levels, according to the older person’s needs as well as the family’s capabilities.

Old woman and a young woman in an activity at the seniors’ club in Dar al-Hawa. Photo by Maya de Vries.

Geographical closeness, the actual living in the same physical space as the family usually has a positive connotation and is an integral part of the notion of “the circle of life” in Dar al-Hawa. A person is born in a specific location, which becomes his or her home. They then raise their family there, grow old there, and eventually die there. ‘The home’ is not just four walls of concrete but also means the land, the territory the home was built upon. Hence, the holding of the home equals to the holding of the land, the family’s territory. In many ways, being an owner of land provides stability, especially when the owner becomes older and cannot work anymore. This stability is extremely important to one’s tranquillity and serenity, which are highly important when getting old. In Islam, as in other cultures, mental health and the ‘health’ of the soul are part of older’s people condition – it is important to have a healthy mind to have a healthy body. When the ‘soul’ starts to lose its connection to the body, meaning memory gets lost, a different stage begins.

When talking with older people in Dar al-Hawa, it felt that there is an acceptance of the notion of “the circle of life” as part of people’s faith and religion. Below, 77-year-old Yasmin’s quote reflects this kind of acceptance of ageing and death quite well – an acceptance we found was widely present among most of the women we spoke with:

“We’ll see what happens next year, maybe I’ll die. Am I thinking about death? I am a believer; I believe in God… Whatever comes will come. This is our religion. The way we look at life in Dar al-Hawa is almost always done through the religious prism, God is the one who determines and determines our destiny, He sees and knows everything. Moreover, the default setting of medical care in Israel, including care for the elderly, is to save and extend lives rather than maintaining the quality of life. This thesis is based on a religious belief in the sanctity of life, on the idea of ​​the circle of life – the emphasis is on the stages, on how each stage is necessary, and probably has a purpose, even if you do not see it at that moment, God knows what, and Man, in the end of things, will know what it is.”

The religious-cultural perception, and to a large extent, the moral perception in Islam, according to the popular interpretation in Dar al-Hawa, is that (older adults are among the most vulnerable in human society and should be taken care of within the community out of respect. This is a moral duty, a religious duty. When thinking about the concept of the circle of life as a framework that shapes daily life and routine in Dar al-Hawa, it is important to understand that it is embedded within the religious practices that shape how a young person should behave with older people and the reasons for behaving in this way. The young person should respect older people, speak to them with dignity, and take care of them as much as he or she can. When he or she reaches this stage (that of being older and eventually elderly), another young person will do the same for them. This is the basic understanding of the circle of life.

Social activity at the community centre, for young and old alike. Photo by Maya de Vries.

With this framework in mind, we return to one of the central topics of the ASSA project: that of smartphone use. Smartphones are carried by most older people in Dar al-Hawa. When contemplating their role in the “circle of life”, we did not see them as violating or breaking the cycle, at least not for the current older generation we were in contact with. On the contrary, we found that smartphones were making the meaning of the circle of life stronger, at least in the sense of helping maintain relationships with the family and community. Things might have been different if older people in Dar al-Hawa were strongly embracing digital culture (e.g. using apps other than WhatsApp and Facebook, paying for services and goods online, paying with their smartphone and so forth). This is one of the topics we will be tackling in our upcoming monograph, ‘Ageing with Smartphones in Al-Quds’, which is due next year.

Intergenerational tensions in the digital era in Yaoundé

p.awondo15 October 2020

Juvenile and senile delinquency

In Yaoundé, the dynamics of interactions between different generations are exemplified by the debates that occupy a significant space in public discussion on Facebook and Whatsapp. Within this framework, tensions are at work in two ways. The first is through debates on the monopolisation of economic, political and social resources by “seniors”. The second is through debates around the perceived immorality of the younger generations. To the accusation of “juvenile delinquency” by the older generations who say that young people are “disrespectful and delinquent”, we have seen the concept of “senile delinquency” opposed by young people, who thus underline the irresponsibility of the “elders”. The intergenerational economic, social and cultural debate has transformed into a trial of the elders and is now in line with the convergence of moral and political discourse.

In Yaoundé, the public sphere in this context is first and foremost community-based; it is constructed in various associations and groups, some of which make identity claims. My research participants sometimes reflect these identity and community dynamics.  This intergenerational discussion transits via the smartphone, mainly through Whatsapp and Facebook, which have both emerged in recent years as powerful levers for constructing what the world of social science calls the “digital public space”, i.e. what characterises “that communicative fora (exist) online that give rise to public debates which, at least at times, influence other fora and feed into finding collectively binding decisions.[i]”  The smartphone has indeed been perceived as being part of ‘young’ culture because of its popularity and widespread use among this demographic as well as its association with technology and creativity.

The ‘trial of the elders’

In Yaoundé, an important point to observe is the way in which the smartphone and social networks have freed up speech around one of the greatest contemporary problems in the country – the context of the trial of the elders. This process revolves around several axes and is expressed in different ways: there is, first of all, access to employment and the distribution of resources; then comes the almost systematic denunciation of the manipulation of the younger generations, especially in the political field.

On the other hand, we can evoke the increasing politicisation of the question of generations and the crystallisation around the process of an ageing elite. This second point occupies a lot of space in public debates and is intensified in forums where, taking advantage of anonymity, people can say or relay positions that condemn gerontocratic power.

Fig 1 & 2: Campaign Bus of Nourane Foster (1) during the 2018 legislative elections and slogan and web photo of the 2018 Presidential Candidate (2) and his slogan “the power of experience”.

For example, during the 2018 presidential elections, when the incumbent candidate Paul Biya (who is now 87) used the slogan “the strength of experience” to advertise his campaign, young people launched counter-slogans as the “strength of youth” on discussion forums such as Cameroon Online. This slogan was later used by young candidates in the legislative elections that followed the presidential ones, which were won by Biya. As can be seen in the screenshots above, a young candidate for the post of deputy in one of Cameroon’s coastal regions chose this exact slogan in a direct allusion to the age of the 87-year-old president. To the “strength of experience” slogan, chanted by the “old” president, the young candidate (32 years old) responded with a provocation that paid off, since she has been elected as the deputy of an opposition party at only 32 and will become the youngest member of parliament in the history of the country.

Community debates around the age of leaders and civil servants

To further illustrate this situation, it is important to observe what happens in the private sphere as well, in addition to the conversations happening as public debates. During my fieldwork in Cameroon, I participated in a Sunday leisure sports group that was mainly made up of retired people. Participating in the group at every month, I saw how on the eve of the election, the debates were shifting towards the question of the age of leaders and, more broadly, the people who are senior members of the Cameroonian public service. Even if in general, people tend to avoid political debates so as not to threaten cohesion and friendship in the group, the events around the election forced a more engaged discussion.  The exchange started with the issue of the participation of the youngest in the vote.  One of the group members, a 66-year-old former geography teacher at the Lycée, spoke of the enthusiasm of his first son, who is 32 years old and also a high school teacher. For him, these elections were important because, in his own words: “for once, there may be a candidate who is young and concerned about the situation of young people”.

Immediately, one of the youngest members of the group, one of only three people under the age of 50, spoke up:

“Everybody is happy to see a person under 40 years of age running for the presidency of the Republic.  It’s good to say that things are moving a little bit, but we’re under no illusions about how it will all end. Even if there are more young people in this country, there is no illusion about the outcome of the elections. It is rather an everyday struggle that we have to fight in this country. A real revolution. Too many old people are in power. It’s worse than in the old days. When you go to the ministries, when you have old people in strategic positions, the people come too late to the responsibilities; it shouldn’t be like that, how can you expect to have a responsible youth”.


One of the older members, a founding member of the association, is quite annoyed at this comment. He is a 68-year-old businessman, who takes the opposite side of the last comment:

“Everyone is talking about old and young people; you want us to do the same with young people in this country. As a trader, I see in the markets how young people refuse to work. They want the easy life, the beautiful things but not the sacrifices that go with it. I am always surprised when people talk like that. A lot of young people are not aware and nobody stops them from doing anything. They have to fight on their own; to conquer things; to get privileges. It happens like that everywhere. I don’t see why here they think that someone has to give them anything.”


The two excerpts are fairly representative of the often passionate exchanges on this topic. The research participants reflect the classic ideological cleavages between young people who aspire to a new social order and “old” people who do not want to give up. There is nothing extraordinary about this, except that some retired people themselves seem to be revolted by the status quo. A majority of research participants stressed the fact that they have to fight to make room for their children in the world of employment, even after retirement. This professional quest by proxy and the time-consuming dimension of this support at a time when they should be resting seems to be a centralising element for the anger of the retired. Research participants thus assured me that they take their “share of responsibility” for the current situation, which is catalysing the frustration of the youngest children. This is all the more so since most of the public debates reflect the exchanges between our research participants and the young adults of whom they are either parents or guardians.

One could say that when it comes to the generational question in Yaoundé, there is a tension in on at least three levels: A first ‘knot’ is the one linked to political expression among the younger generation. Each side is constantly being put on trial by the other, with fighting taking place as if it was between two different species: the young on one side and the retired and elderly on the other. A second knot lies in the contrast between the strong claims about intergenerational relationships that are exacerbated and sensationalised by digital technology and the actual day-to-day work that takes place within extended families and communities. It is not uncommon for retirees to try to integrate young people into the urban fabric through the time devoted to this objective. The final ‘knot’ is in line with this second one and concerns, at the family level, the daily relations which they rebuild in order to practice reciprocity and mutual support. This is particularly the case when young people constantly assist older people in the use of smartphones and, more broadly, in managing the “new urban life”: paying bills with mobile money, transferring funds, updating applications, buying telephone credit. All these are vital and unavoidable actions that some of our research participants in Cameroon are not always very comfortable doing. This last ‘knot’ helps to mitigate the effects of the intergenerational tension because, in reality, there is dependence and complementarity and this is well exemplified by different generations working together on integrating the smartphone into each other’s everyday lives.

[i] Schafer S M (2015) « Digital Public Sphere» in Mazzoleni, Gianpietro et al. (2015, Eds.): The International Encyclopedia of Political Communication. London: Wiley Blackwell. Pp. 322-328.