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The impact of physical work in old age — by Charlotte Hawkins

XinyuanWang16 April 2019

In Uganda, 70% of the workforce is employed in the ‘informal sector’ [UBOS, 2014], mostly self-employed in unregistered business. This is reflected in Godown, the Kampala fieldsite, where the majority of interviewees run their own small business, such as hawking fruits, market vending, driving bodas (motorbike taxis) and brewing waragi. Many of these jobs require physical labour.

The deterioration of physical health, accelerated by physically demanding work, can mean that old age presents a significant challenge to people who rely on their bodies for their income. This is the case for Achola’s husband, who throughout our recent interview, was busy bending to serve food to frequent lunchtime customers. It turned out he had chronic back pain. A visit to the hospital the day before had confirmed that ‘his spine is splitting’, a slipped disk. He’s not responded to other treatments and can’t afford a brace, so they’ve recommended surgery, but he’s nervous to weaken himself; he needs to work for his wife and grandchildren, and elderly relatives in the village. He was even planning to take the 10 hour bus to visit them the following day, ‘I have to go and farm, it’s the month’.

65 year old Palma also has back problems after 30 years of ‘moving with bananas’, carrying a basket to sell in town. She has to continue working to support her 3 orphaned grandchildren. ‘It was her parents to take care of them and her’, but now she has to do it alone. She struggles to pay their school fees, and in return, they cook, wash and clean for her. Sometimes she falls sick, and the family must rely on her neighbours to bring them food. Whilst she feels that her work has kept her active and healthy, she’s now tired, so hopes she can get a market stall so she can sit in one place.

Both stories here emphasise the reliance on family support in old age and the burden this places on individuals, especially when it breaks down. The head of physiotherapy at the local government hospital is all too familiar with such stories. He feels that informal workers contribute significantly to the Ugandan economy but are neglected by public services. He hopes for further investment in prevention and promotion to alleviate the impact of physical work on people’s bodies over time, seeking health protection for informal workers and advising them on how they can better protect themselves.

As part of the ASSA project, we plan to make a short film on the impact of physical work on older people’s health in Godown, that he can use to support further research, advocacy and community sensitisation to this end.

The Words of “oldness” in Yaoundé — by Patrick Awondo

XinyuanWang18 January 2019

Hat weaving, common creative by Max Pixel

In a book published in 2004 the French linguist Alain Montandon[1] brought together studies that show how old age is expressed in different languages, not only Indo-European languages, but also in other parts of the world and especially in Africa. Montandon argues that these amount to two universal traits.

Firstly, in almost all languages, there are various categories  of old age, especially a division between terms implying  physical old age as against normative categories of old age. For example, old age may be considered a “a gift of God, a spiritual achievement”. At the same time, old age is linguistically expressed in terms of declining physical abilities, such as impotence. The decline of the body may become linguistically associated with  personality disorders that contrast other images of an old person who is “happy, harmonious, full of wisdom and serenity “.

Perception of old age may reference elements of physical modification, such as the appearance of white hair. Montandon also notes the sociocultural variability of age categorizations. Almost always signs of are or relative maturity are different when applied to the poor as opposed to the rich.  Our comparative project accentuates these economic differences because of its focus upon retirement, which presupposes a formal structure of employment, that cannot be assumed for some of our fieldsites, and this shows the importance of such comarative studies. With these thoughts in mind, what do the linguistic expressions of the perception of old age tell us about  Yaoundé and Cameroon?

Expressing old age in Yaoundé

Originally inhabited by the Ewondo, Yaoundé is today home to nearly 3 million people from across Cameroon. French is the most commonly spoken official language across the country, employed by 80% of the population followed by English.[ref UNESCO]. So linguistic terms testify to a creativity that speaks to the dynamics of contemporary French aligned with borrowings from many national and local languages which remain strong alongisde the two official languages. For example, Ewondo, the Bantu langauge of Yaounde.

However, I would prefer to start with the Ewondo language, which belongs to the Bantu group.  In Ewondo the expression “Nya modo”, ‘this cultural area and modo ‘man’. ‘Nya modo’ is a name and a notion that refers to a person perceived as old, as well as a concept symbolically meaning the attributes of nobility of spirit, of wisdom. Even today, the expression ‘Nya modo’ refers to people who are seen as being middle aged, the most prestigious age group, superseding even the elderly. The term is made up of nya’ meaning ‘mother’ and modo which means man in the sense of the human species. The female equivalent of ‘nya modo’ is ‘nya minega’, which carries less status.

Aging: age, social status and moral discourse

In everyday French, older age is often expressed through a term analogous with the English expression ‘of a certain age’  which for people in Yaounde seems to translate as ‘as an intermediate age’, neither too old nor too young, implying people over 50 years old. The informants of Yaounde often say “he / she has an old age” while the expression “advanced age” could mean an “older person”. The top end of this category according to most informants would be around 70 years old. When a Yaoundéan feels that a person “of a certain age” says things which are deemed unworthy, he will be called “an old man like that” or an “old woman like that”, making clear the moral expectations that are associated with the process of ageing  This puts forward a moral expectation related to ‘getting old’.  In this manner we can see the linguistic variety within yaoundé that help to both forge categories for labelling the stages of ageing, but also represent these as having moral and cultural expectations against which the actual people are judged. . These games of linguistic meaning are important especially because the people who are thereby designated with both labels and normative expectations have then to confront the manner in which they have been defined.

[1] For more please see Alain Montandon (études rassemblées par), Les Mots du Vieillir, Clermont-Ferrand, Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2004.