Kathleen tells...


Young and old in Rwanda


Occasionally, my girlfriends and I talk about how we'll grow old together. We fantasize about slurping coffee with a piece of chocolate cake with too much whipped cream. We share our intimacies with each other. We live in the same house and have a lot of staff who can provide for all our old-wives needs. We remain free from annoying ailments and watch from our comfortable sofa how the young people are working their asses off. And yes, our husbands are also allowed to stay with us. If they behave. 


Here in Rwanda we rarely meet old people. The average age in this small country is 19 years and the average life expectancy is around 59 years. 

Yet there they are, the people of old age. They are usually cranky types, because if you're fragile, you won't reach a far end in this country. Sometimes we see elderly people who are no longer able to walk properly: grandmothers lying on their side in front of the doorway of the house, or in front of the market stall of their daughter. They wear shawls of brightly coloured Congolese fabrics and have often draped a headscarf of the same fabric in complicated shapes high on their heads. Many passers-by greet them, or squat down for a chat.


Once in a while the elderly we meet are still walking and standing, but no longer bright in spirit. They hang around in the yard of their son or daughter, or in the streets of the village. When we greet them, we don't get a reaction back, just the empty look of dementia. The adult children involve them in everyday life, by taking them for a walk when they are herding the herd, for example. And since the whole village knows them, they are in good hands if they wander around a bit. 

The last couple of weeks we were shown around in the Nyungwe Forest National Park and the arboretum of the University of Huye by some 20-year old guides. They gained almost all their knowledge about the medicinal effects of the plants from their grandparents. ‘My grandmother used to tell me... Grandpa used to do it this way... Once I broke my wrist, Grandma did this...' Most resident grandparents are educators too. Several young people tell us, for example, that it was their grandfather who insisted on going to school, and who collected the necessary school fees. 

Sometimes the great influence of these grandparents is the painful consequence of the fact that many young people lost one or both parents to AIDS. Or by the horrible events of the genocide in 1994. But just as often it is simply a consequence of the organisation of family life. Elderly people pass on their knowledge to their offspring through daily life. The gratitude and affection of our young guides for their grandparents can be felt in every word they share with us.


But you don't necessarily have to belong to the family to be appreciated here as an elder. When we took the taxi boat on Lake Kivu, a woman - far above 90 years old - went along as well. A long stick supported her walk. At the same time she leaned heavily on her (grand?) daughter's arm. Shuffling and agonizingly slow, she made her way to the cliff along the shore, where the wooden boat with its point was moored against the shore.


Two young boatmen carefully lifted her onto their barge. Once on the boat, the mooring ropes lying on the wooden floor were a real ordeal for the woman. She stopped at each rope, raised one foot slowly, let it rest on the rope for a moment, then put it over, and then let the second foot follow. It took both women at least twenty minutes to get off the quay on a wooden bench of the boat. A few steps, then a rest, another few steps, another rest. In the meantime, the boatman stopped all the other passengers and their jute bags full of charcoal, coffee beans and rice on the quay. Everyone stood quietly looking at the snail's pace of the woman, or just chatting. Old people sometimes need time, so they get that time. Even if that means that the boat can't sail 'on time'.


When we meet an old man or woman on the way, we make explicit eye contact and slow down for a while. Paul greets the men, although they are strongly outnumbered. I address the women. Our personal greeting is often answered with sparkling eyes, exuberant laughter and both hands going up in the air, as a token of appreciation. Elderly people are often given a central and leading role in the community, which they have naturally acquired by living so long.


Yet there is another side to the authoritative position of all these old people. The village elders decide with whom their children may or may not marry and how many goats and cattle have to be exchanged between the families. They speak justice in times of discussion. And, as is often the case in rural societies, they love tradition and conservation. 

Family planning, for example, does not appeal to 79-year-old Mr. David. He himself has nine children and more than fifteen grandchildren. In a country where a social security system barely exists, the children are the most important prerequisite for a dignified old age. In case of hospitalization, the patients have to be fed and washed by their relatives. Nurses are only there for medical interventions such as medication administration. And if you want some yield from your patch of land, enough hands need to be able to cooperate. Children are therefore of vital importance. 

Even on a national level, the elderly have the power. Many African leaders are over 70 years old. In general, these leaders' desire for tradition is a major obstacle for the masses of young African people to make changes in their communities, to be innovative, to experiment, to learn by trial and error, to hold their own and differing opinions. Because contradicting older people is not done. Although Rwandan President Kagame also keeps a tight rein on the reins, he gives the youth in Rwanda a little more room for manoeuvre than his colleagues in neighbouring countries. Kagame aspires to a knowledge economy, a great digital progress for his country and wants to lift Rwanda from a developing country to a middle-income country in the coming years. To achieve this, he needs young talent who can put their knowledge and entrepreneurship at the service of the country.


In recent years, young entrepreneurs have been strongly encouraged to get their businesses off the ground. Kigali could be called the Berlin of Africa. The city is bursting with creativity, initiatives, small businesses... If you want to work here as an entrepreneur, the bureaucratic hassle is taken care of within 24 hours.

Last year, the 'Accelerate Summit' took place in Kigali, where 50 promising students from different disciplines were given the opportunity to follow an intensive programme on business and management. During the same period, Kigali also hosted the international 'Transform Africa Summit', where business leaders, heads of state, academics and young entrepreneurs discussed the pro’s and contra’s of a digital economy.


Many young people are increasingly taking the initiative themselves to unite and make their voices heard. With the arrival of the mobile phone and the Internet, a growing group of middle-class young people, even in the most remote villages, have in recent years gained insight into how things are going elsewhere. This has led to organisations such as 'Africans rising', founded by young middle class people from various African countries who unite and want to put the continent on the world map as a fully-fledged partner. They have ideas, proposals, reservations and a lot of energy and ambition. And they are becoming more and more self-conscious.


When the Rwandan youth will have a greater say in the course of events, it remains to be seen what the long-term consequences will be for the elderly in this country. The recent dialogue between the different generations has already realised a big modernisation of the country in recent years. We often go to one of the many trendy coffee bars in Kigali, all creative places and meeting places for young artists. On the walls are colourful abstract acrylic paintings. The banana cake is delicious. So is the cappuccino. Let’s hope the whipped cream will follow soon.