20 January 2013

Rwanda: Older Generation Needs ICT Literacy to Adapt to New Lifestyles

It's sometimes quite challenging and intimidating elderly people to accept and cope with changes. When you look into the lives of Rwandans back in the 80's, you can say that socially people were living in tight-knit families.

There was Umuganura, or Thanksgiving Day, one of the most important ceremonies performed by the people at the beginning of every harvest season. The event dated back to precolonial times, a unifying festivity when people shared what they had produced - either at the family level, the village up to the Kingdom. The rich and the poor, prominent and modest families, young and old, all came together to share what they had without exclusion.

"That's how we lived; we were content of what had -- no matter how little it was," says Hassan Kanamugire, 67, who was the accountant at Trafipro. "But when I look at this generation, I feel pity for them. Life has become tough where children see their mom rarely."

He says that he fails in many ways to keep up with the current generation. That's why he has never used -- or been interested in -- a computer; he still has his typewriter and feels comfortable with it. He doesn't have an email either. And when his children call him, he doesn't want to pick up the phone. "I need them to come and see me physically. I'm their father."

"When a family member, neighbor or colleague gave birth, it was a good time for people to once again come together," says his wife, Mariam Mukasine, 64. "It was the same for the time of weddings, where your family and friends would offer you various commodities that could last for months."

The aging couple lives at Nyamirambo, alone with a TV, radio, and a company of housekeepers. All of their 3 children are married and working. They don't have a specific timeframe for visiting them. The parents sometimes feel confused, especially when they want to visit their children, to find out that they won't be available.

They say that they feel lonely and miss the social ties that characterized their societies at the time. For instance, the Kanamugire says, during the weekend you could find a group of men gathered in different homes playing igisoro for the whole day. The wife would cook for all of them. The next weekend, they would gather in someone else's home and so on.

"I remember that I have seen quite a handful working women at the time - mainly receptionists and secretaries. Women usually stayed at home caring for the children. They were also the social bond between families," he remarks.

If you hadn't seen your friends for a few days, the wife says, you could assume that she was sick or might be having some serious problems. "That's how we the older generation lived; we've always cared for one another. We were living like a united family."

Anonymous neighbors

After years, things changed and people started to become more and more self-centered. Faced by life's challenges, we started seeing women in all kinds of businesses for the first time. Everything changed, and everyone was forced to change to go with times.

"People also became busier than before. If you still have parents, it's almost impossible to find time and go and visit them. Some of us work six days a week and go to school every evening," says Célise Urwibutso, a student at Mount Kenya University. "Life has become harder and more complicated than ever before. You could be neighbors with someone without even knowing her. Everyone is busy with and cares for her own world."

With the advent of social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram and What's Up Messenger, young people have effectively escaped the loneliness of modern life and created virtual social circles where they constantly meet in order to have a company. If someone is sick, they all post to wish him well; if it's a birth or marriage, there are tons of tons of congratulatory messages with the virtual friends expecting the photos to be shared soon.

But the older generation is missing out. "For us, we are becoming more and more lonely. We can't know how to use those things. Children no longer know how we spend our days," says Kanamugire. "If we are sick, it's rare to find them here. Even our ageing friends, we no longer see them too. The world has changed too much."

Last Thursday, the Ministry of Youth and ICT launched the "National ICT Literacy and Awareness Campaign" after realizing that a large number of people is still not ICT literate -- less than 4% of citizens of 6 years and above are computer literate -- and have not fully utilized the potential of ICT tools and services due to lack of awareness. It might be an opportunity for the elderly to catch up.

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