Today Tonny, Doreen and I are in Bwaise, in an area also known as KiMombasa – famous for its nightlife. We are shadowing Jajja Nakimera. Jajja in Luganda means Grandmother and it is a designation signalling respect from the younger members of society at large. “My husband is here!” she exclaims as she gives Tonny and the rest of us big hugs. You see, Tonny comes from the same clan as Nakimera’s deceased husband hence, as many African cultures dictate, she can jokingly get away with assigning that position to him too as a sign of loyalty and respect. Nakimera is a bubbly seventy-year old grandmother who has lived in Bwaise for just over forty years. She came to Bwaise when the area was still an undeveloped wetland with few people. She has an especially wicked sense of humour which even I can get despite my limited understanding of Luganda. She lives with her four grandchildren.
Like most of our shadowees, Nakimera tells us she can no longer afford to eat matooke on a regular basis. Most days she prepares maize porridge (posho) and potatoes with greens or beans instead. Today she is teaching her granddaughter Nakimuli how to steam the posho and sweet potatoes. When we ask why Nakimuli is not at school, Nakimera tells us that her granddaughter cannot go to school for now because she cannot afford the school fees. So she has decided in the meanwhile to teach Nakimuli how to cook food whilst she tries to raise the money for school fees. When Tonny asks her why she insists on steaming the posho and potatoes, Nakimera replies with a twinkle in her eye, “… never marry a woman who just boils food Tonny, such a woman is not worth her bride price. All food should be steamed like this. It’s hard work but it’s also a sign of a good woman.”
Nakimera and Nakimuli prepare the food on a three-stone stove, the kind that is used in many a rural home across Africa as well as on a normal clay charcoal stove which has been retrofitted to take timber instead of charcoal. Her kitchen is on one side of an outdoor shed, the other side of the shed serves as her food-selling counter. Nakimera makes a livelihood selling fresh vegetables and cooked meals to the community. Her cooking is renowned in the area so she also makes a living cooking for those who do not have time to cook for themselves. She points out that although it is getting harder to provide adequate food for her family, she appreciates the food donations that people she cooks for give her. She has a plot of land about 15km outside Kampala where she grows potatoes, tomatoes and other vegetables for consumption and selling but she highlights that she struggles to go there now as her back is giving her problems.
She uses timber off-cuts from a nearby furniture factory for cooking. Charcoal is too expensive and the timber off-cuts are usually free unless there has been a power cut. A power cut would mean that there are no timber off-cuts available since the factory would not have been running. That is usually not much of a problem for Nakimera as she usually collects a lot of timber and stores it on top of her cooking shed. For water, Nakimera’s family gets their water from Nabukalu well like most other households in Bwaise. “I once had a yard tap installed in my compound,” she says as she points to a small mound of cloth and sand across the compound, “… but the monthly bill was too high so I asked them to come and disconnect the tap. I could not afford to pay 80 000 shillings a month just for water. Now we get our water from Nabukalu well like everyone else.” Of the frequent floods that Bwaise is infamous for, Nakimera points out that although she lives right next to the storm drain, she has flood-proofed her home over the years by putting sand bags and building a protected entrance. “I know people say water is life unless you live in Bwaise, but I have managed to protect my home so far” , she adds.
As Tonny and I discuss the shadowing session at a later date, we come a sobering realisation: that Nakimera is just one of an emerging type of citizen in African cities – that of the vulnerable elderly. Somehow we were under the mistaken impression that this was a distinctly Western phenomenon. Colonial African cities were not designed with aging native populations in mind. The thinking then was that natives came to the city to work and once they reached retirement age, they would return to their rural homes and live out the rest of their lives there. Whilst post-colonial state and city governments have unwittingly retained this outlook (partly due to the low life expectancy in many African countries), the reality is that there is an absolute (if not proportional increase) in the number of the urban elderly; and this increase is in the absence of adequate social policy and security systems (Amin Kamete, 2007, see http://nai.uu.se/about/organisation/annualreport/annual_report_2007.pdf).
Furthermore, Nakimera and others like her have been robbed of the support of their children and extended family (the assumed main support structure for the elderly in African societies) by wars and disease. When we asked Nakimera of the whereabouts of Nakimuli‘s parents, a brief cloud of sadness passed over her face, as she related how she has lost eight of her nine children over the years. “These children have no one but me, and I am getting too old as well” she said. So the elderly remain as the main livelihood-earners for their grandchildren even as they are increasingly unable to work. Age is therefore a compounding dynamic in the vulnerability of households to fuel poverty, food insecurity and water quality and environmental problems at the urban Nexus in cities like Kampala.