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Orphans without elders struggle with their identity

01 Dec 2009

‘Age helps' sums up HelpAge's core position. We believe that older people are a benefit to society and a positive force for change.

Unfortunately, we find that most messages about older people in the media are extremely negative and focused on older people's vulnerability - something that we are constantly challenging and trying to change.

I found a really interesting article in PlusNews this week, "ZAMBIA: Orphans grow up without cultural identity" which finally showed the need for older people's experience in communities, and was a rare example of an ‘age helps' message.

It highlighted the crucial and unique role that older people play as educators and mentors around the world and why it is so important for us to empower older people and fight for their rights.

Growing up without cultural identity

UNICEF's latest report on Orphans and Vulnerable Children shows that there are 20,000 households in Zambia led by children, with the number increasing.

The article highlights the case of Abigail Mwanashimba, who is 19 and has been looking after her five siblings since she was eight. On top of the struggle to feed and look after her siblings, when it came for her to marry, she faced further problems.

She said "I don't know anything about my tribe or its culture because there has never been anyone to teach or show me...the last straw was the humiliation I suffered at my in-laws' home, when I embarrassed them by performing the wrong dance."

A second girl, Agnes Ngubeni, faced a similar problem, as she could not speak the language of her tribe; "People called us goats ... they said we were ‘cultureless'... It never occurred to them that there was no one to teach us - we lived without elders," she said.

An invisible issue

Interestingly, organisations working with such child-headed families have failed to notice this issue, admitting it is something they have wrongly overlooked. It shows that the invisibility of older people is widespread and institutionalised. On this evidence though, the fundamental function that older people provides has a huge impact on communities.

Local organisations say they concentrate on keeping children off drugs and teaching the values of contraception and education - all of which are extremely valuable. Tellingly though, they said "we lose sight of the fact that children need to be socialised in the ways of their tribe"

Read more about the work HelpAge does all over Africa.

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Author profile


Sarah Marzouk
Country: UK
Job title: Digital Communications

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