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Zanzibar: Celebrating a new pension and the life of Bi Kidude

15 Apr 2016

Legendary singer Bi Kidude. (c) Andy Jones.

Zanzibar will make history today as it becomes the first country in East Africa to provide a state-funded universal pension for older people.

As a result of this groundbreaking move, the country's men and women over 70 will receive a monthly, non-contributory pension of Tsh 20,000 (US$9). This will be pegged to the cost of an essential basket of goods from April 2016. For the vast majority of older people living in extreme poverty, with no dependable source of income, this pension provides a much-needed stable income.

Remembering Bi Kidude

This week also marks the third anniversary of the death of legendary Zanzibarian Fatuma binti Baraka, also known as Bi Kidude. She was a renowned singer and "queen of Taarab", from the island famous for its spices and tourist attractions.

In the early 90s, Bi Kidude was a member of the Shikamo Jazz band of older musicians from the Tanzania capital Dar es Salaam, who were sponsored by HelpAge International. She toured Britain in 1995 and was a major attraction at the Womad festival in Reading. Her deep, wailing voice expressed the raw emotion of a lifetime's experience.

But Bi Kidude's involvement with HelpAge went beyond that of the entertainer, as one of Zanzibar's finest and most iconic musicians. She was also an active advocate for the rights of older people.

In 2009, HelpAge collaborated with the Government of Zanzibar to carry out a study on social protection and health. A key finding of the study was that the majority of older men and women in Zanzibar were living in poverty. Many were working as subsistence farmers with barely enough income to survive, and they were also performing a vital role of caring for children. This, the report added, was at a stage of life where many experienced declining health and limited physical mobility.

Witness to the start of the journey on the road to a pension

Bi Kidude was among the many people who gathered to launch the report at an official event, also attended by then President of Zanzibar Amani Abeid Karume. This launch marked the start of the journey that culminates today with the Government of Zanzibar providing its senior citizens with the first state-funded universal pension in East Africa. It is fitting then that we should celebrate the launch of the pension and the life of Bi Kidude at the same time.

Zanzibar's Minister of Finance back in May 2015, the Honourable Omar Yussuf Mzee, announced that all citizens aged 70 and over would receive the monthly cash benefit. He also said that from 1 April, 2016, the government would start paying the universal pension to "every eligible older citizen, regardless of his or her current income."

An amount of 1.65 billion Tsh (US$754,000) has been made available for the pension payments.

Pension is key to protection from poverty

The value of a small pension payment for older people in Zanzibar is immeasurable. It will make a massive difference in protecting them from poverty.

Some 16.5% of households in Zanzibar are headed by or include older people. A stable income, no matter how small, will help these households meet their basic needs, improve their nutrition and pay for their grandchildren's education. This money is particularly important for those very vulnerable households in which both older people and children live without a person of working age.

A universal pension offers a range of advantages over means-tested options. It avoids excluding potential eligible recipients due to design or registration requirements. It also complies with the "leave no one behind" call of the new Sustainable Development Goals that places the universality of human rights at the centre of its commitment.

The pivotal role of Bi Kidude

The coincidence between Bi Kidude's third anniversary and the historic launch of the universal pension in Zanzibar is a great opportunity to remember her life and work. She may have been the greatest artist of her time, but she also played a crucial role when the movement of older people was in its infancy.

Through her musical talent Bi created visibility for older people by performing in her own country and on the international stage. If she were alive today, I think she would be proud to see that the journey she witnessed beginning back in 2009 is now bearing its fruit.

Watch "As Old As My Tongue"

Legendary singer Bi Kidude. (c) Andy Jones.

The legendary singer's life was documented in the award winning film As Old As My Tongue, which is being released online worldwide this weekend. HelpAge are delighted to be supporting this celebration of Bi Kidude and the documentary shows the incredible impact she had not only in Zanzibar, but on audiences around the world.

I Shot Bi Kidude and As Old As My Tongue are released in Tanzania on 17 April. Find out more on the film's official website.

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Author profile

Amleset Tewodros
Country: Eritrea
Job title: Head of Programmes, Africa

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These blogs are personal reflections and do not necessarily reflect the views of HelpAge International.