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Regardless of intention, the act of rendering an elderly parent invisible hinges on the individual and their prevailing attitudes toward their aged parents. Unfortunately, the wives in many households fall short in caring for their husbands’ parents, necessitating intervention from the husbands themselves.
In the narrow lane of my childhood memories, one figure stands out distinctly—a woman of fortitude and humor, my maternal grandmother, whom we affectionately called Neneh. Originating from the resilient lands of Fulladu in the Casamance region of Senegal, she emerged as the matriarch of her family, a role thrust upon her at a young age due to the untimely passing of her mother. From a tender age, Neneh assumed the responsibility of caring for her four siblings—three younger and one older, all of them boys. Her nurturing presence aimed to fill the void left by their mother’s perpetual absence.
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Neneh was a force of hard work and diligence. In our early years, she could be found at the bustling Farato village market, where she sold vegetables cultivated in her own home garden. Rice and smoked fish were also part of her repertoire, all products of her industrious hands. Even now, the scent of fish being smoked transports me back to the image of Neneh using woven sacks to smoke bonga fish, later drying them on the sunlit roof.
A woman ahead of her time, Neneh emerges as a visionary, who defied societal norms to secure and own her piece of land. This remarkable feat, funded by the proceeds of her market sales, became a testament to her forward-thinking spirit. Later, she bestowed this precious land of more than 10,000 square metres, upon her daughters, dividing it with an equal hand among the three. Today, each daughter, with her extended family, finds solace and continuity on the land gifted by the hands of Neneh.
Beyond the tangible legacy of land, Neneh assumed the mantle of a breadwinner, her modest earnings forming the bedrock of her family’s sustenance for years. In the intricate dance of familial dynamics, she stood sternly among her peers, including my grandfather and step-grandmother. Yet, beneath the facade of authority, Neneh exuded a remarkable blend of accommodation and warmth.
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Mornings in our neighborhood bore witness to Neneh’s ritual of extending greetings to the entire street, a seemingly small yet profoundly significant act that spoke volumes about her community presence. What set her apart was not just the act of greeting but the genuine interest she displayed in the lives of those around her. With an uncanny ability to recall and discuss the minutiae of recent events, she transformed each interaction into a personal and meaningful connection.
Navigating the complexities of a polygamous family structure, Neneh adeptly maintained a delicate balance. Despite the potential for petty jealousies inherent in such arrangements, she, like any woman, cultivated a relationship with her co-wife characterized by a harmonious blend of cordiality and respect. This served as a testament to her profound understanding that cooperation and mutual respect were indispensable ingredients for the overall well-being of everyone involved. Notably, she was the sole bearer of children in the relationship, as her co-wife faced challenges in conceiving.
While not recognized for her playfulness with her grandchildren, Neneh possessed a wicked sense of humor during her happier days. Night after night, she wove captivating tales around the fire, creating an enchanting atmosphere that lingered in the memories of those who gathered. Yet, above all, I remember her leadership during challenging times, ensuring that the family partake at least two square meals each day.
As the sands of time flowed onward, Neneh gradually faded into social invisibility, grappling with various ailments that confined her to the limits of her home. Meanwhile, her children, now engrossed in the complexities of their own older lives, unintentionally widened the gap between her world and theirs.
The weight of Neneh’s invisibility became more pronounced in the later years, particularly after the passing of both my grandfather and her co-wife. This period marked a time of heightened loneliness for her, accentuated by a profound sense of neglect and devaluation.
In our sincere conversations, Neneh often shared the depths of her emotions, revealing feelings of worthlessness and exclusion—a poignant testament to the struggles of aging in a society that sometimes overlooks the invaluable richness that older individuals bring. She would lament, “No one asks for my opinion anymore. No one wants to hear my input.”
Despite my efforts to bridge the divide by frequent visits with my young family and occasional weekends spent together, it proved insufficient to heal the scars of her past struggles. Neneh entrusted me with her deepest confessions, unveiling a history of familial strife, including her father’s abusive beatings of her mother until she became unconscious. This traumatic experience profoundly affected her and her brothers, enduring its impact even after her mother’s passing.
Neneh recounted the challenges she faced, including my grandfather’s favoritism toward her lighter-skinned co-wife and her relentless struggle to secure her family’s place on a land she did not consider her own. Our conversations served as a window into the fortitude of this remarkable woman, revealing the customs and values she held dear. Amidst all her disappointments, she grappled with the compounded sense of worthlessness that accompanied old age.
In the tapestry of our cultural norms, the custom of elderly women residing with their sons and their families has inadvertently woven threads of isolation and invisibility into the lives of the elderly. Tragically, many daughters-in-law lack the empathy and nurturing presence needed to integrate their elderly in-laws, intensifying the pervasive sense of invisibility.
The ache is palpable each time I step into a seemingly picturesque home where the matriarch resides in the boy’s quarters, attended to by a house servant or a homecare nurse, occasionally graced by visits from her vibrant grandchildren. Often, these elderly individuals willingly recede from active engagement within the household, unable to assert their dignity and autonomy. They might not recognize their own worth, struggling to understand how their mere presence enriches the lives of those around them. In clinging to these beliefs, they unwittingly surrender their own power.
Herein lies the paradox—and the irony—of it all: When a son refuses to “see” his parents, he unwittingly erases his own reflection in the mirror of time. By perpetuating this cycle, he sets himself up for similar treatment in the future by his own children. The same applies to the wife of the household.
In the moments of quiet reflection today, a lingering question emerges: What compels people to perceive others as old and, subsequently, to devalue, ignore, marginalize, and neglect them? This contemplation transcends the elderly alone; age-based invisibility casts its shadow over the powerless, encompassing foster children, and adults considered non-contributors, who often find themselves overshadowed or entirely overlooked. This pervasive issue finds resonance in various forms, even echoing in poignant songs like Assan Ndiaye’s melancholic composition, ‘Diiw.’
As I reflect on Neneh and the indelible mark she left on my life, I conclude that by failing to recognize and embrace the immense potential of older adults to contribute to society—due to the acquired skills, knowledge, and experience that only deepen with time—ageists harm us all. They not only render older individuals powerless but also deplete society of the ability to progress in civility, equity, and economic abundance. Without Neneh, there would be no Mama, and without Mama, there’d be no me, my dear Marie.