27 January 2013

Rwanda: When Age Is Just a Number

At first sight, my heart was filled with sadness, grief and pity, seeing men and women as old as 70 and above busy digging.

I asked myself why this kind of work wasn't left to the young and strong ones. I felt like I was seeing my own grandparents physically toiling to put food on the table.

That is what compelled me to have a one on one with each one of them - to understand why they decide to work that hard even when their old age speaks volumes about their weariness.

Indeed, their unique stories of resilience inspired me and reignited my zeal to work hard. 90-year-old Merianna Mukandekyezi, a widow, is one of the 44 elderly people I met in Nyanza District who earn a living through digging.

Like her colleagues, Merianna wakes up at the break of dawn and makes sure she is in the garden by 7:00am to begin her day's work, which goes until to 2:00pm.

Before she started working with the Land Husbandry, Water Harvesting and Hillside Irrigation project two years ago, she would just wake up to self pity every other day, waiting for her creator to call her home since she felt like there was nothing she could do even though she didn't like the whole idea of sitting at home all day.

She would just rely on her daughter - who is also a widow with three children for food. However, her daughter, too, didn't have a stable income since she also survives on digging.

But food wasn't so much of a problem since they had their own small garden although she wasn't able to meet all the other basic needs like soap and clothing.

"I was always filled with sadness because I couldn't afford soap, a gitenge or shoes like other people. So, when this opportunity came, I thought to myself that as long as I was alive and healthy, I could still work and earn some little money instead of waiting for good Samaritans," she says.

The old woman goes on: "I was just a sad old woman always wishing for a kind person to cross my path each day and leave me some little money for soap and sugar.

"That was when the Land Husbandry, Water Harvesting and Hillside Irrigation project under the Ministry of Agriculture came my way and offered me this job. I am paid Rwf1,000 per day. I get my wages after every 15 days through SACCOS.

"Many people thought we were too old to handle this kind of work but they were wrong. Granted, we need this money but it also helps us to stretch and strengthen our bones and keep physically fit. We now have savings accounts in SACCOS and we've been taught how to make good use of money.

"Through my savings I have so far bought a piece of land on which I have built two houses. I have also bought two hoes and a kitenge.

"I have worked here for close to two years now and I really appreciate this project for considering us - the elderly and vulnerable. Most projects focus on the youth and forget that we also exist. However, my only wish is to earn more than Rwf1,000 a day because the cost of living is high even here in the village," she says.

Merianna advises other old people and the youth to always work hard, never despise jobs and make use of every opportunity as long as God continues to give them life, strength and good health.

She also urges them to embrace the idea of saving - no matter how little - for that is the only way one can implement their plans and achieve something.

But the story of 89-year-old Yasson Gakuba, who lost all his children and relatives during the grotesque 1994 Genocide, is the most disquieting. Before the Land Husbandry, Water Harvesting and Hillside Irrigation project came into the picture, Gakuba was helpless and hopeless and he felt like he had been left with nothing in this life.

In his own words: "I had no source of income yet I couldn't sell off the food from my garden since it was niggling. Besides, who would buy? Almost everyone in my neighbourhood has a garden from where they get their food.

"I had gotten used to poverty. I was unable to meet my basic needs. I couldn't even change meals like other people. I learnt to live within my means though I always hoped for a source of income.

"When this project came and offered me a job life changed: I bought a piece of land and I can now change meals. But I wish we could get a pay rise and further improve our lives."

During their break at around midday, the old men and women gather to sing and dance before resuming their work.

These are some of the many elderly people in Nyanza who have defied the odds; they don't just sit there and wait for their children to feed them. Despite their old age, they happily wake up early every morning to go to work.

A big lesson for the rest of us who are younger and stronger, isn't it?

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