“This is really starting to get interesting, because I have lots of stories to tell!” exclaimed Bernice (pseudonym), a 95-year-old participant in the newly-launched Upper Peninsula Digital History Initiative (UPDHI) in Hancock, a small town in northern Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. The tension in the air was palpable as the four older adults and four youth participants introduced themselves around the table in the conference hall of the hosting organization, Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly. In fact, Bernice, who turned out to be the project’s most captivating storyteller, insisted that her limited education level and current vision and hearing troubles would prevent her from being able to produce a video, and she nearly dropped out of the program. But once the storytelling got started the mood eased and the elder participants filled the afternoon with moving tales and funny anecdotes covering topics ranging from war and activism to surviving the long, dark Hancock winters as children. They were energized – and even surprised – that others were so were interested in their stories. To my surprise, I left that conference room with a new perspective on the tiny town I grew up in – which I thought I knew inside out. Continue reading
“They are my daughter’s blood. I couldn’t watch my blood suffer,” an elderly grandmother in Uganda told me. She was referring to her daughter’s four orphaned children, explaining why she refused to allow the children to go live with their father’s clan – the clan that is traditionally responsible for the upbringing of orphaned children.
In my forthcoming ethnography, Crying for Our Elders: African Orphanhood in the Age of HIV/AIDS (Cheney 2017), an intergenerational, life-course approach helped me examine the way AIDS orphanhood has influenced child circulation and dynamic processes of kinship construction in Uganda. I trace the sometimes-contradictory social, economic, and emotional effects of orphan circulation within and across family networks, highlighting orphaned children’s concerns with identity that prompt intra-family mobility as they grow into adulthood. In doing so, I show how orphan care in the age of HIV/AIDS is consequently transforming both fosterage practices and kin obligation, potentially jeopardizing children’s well-being and their ability to identify with the ‘blood ties’ that still form powerful tropes of relatedness for them – in spite of, and sometimes because of, AIDS’ tainting of ‘blood’. Continue reading
After more than a decade of following how the lives of grandparents and grandchildren – two different generations- in northwest Tanzania have unfolded, it is increasingly exciting to think with the concepts of time and the body. How does time play out in relations with grandchildren as they gradually grow up from toddlers to young children to adolescents and young adults? What is ‘grandparenthood’ about in these different life-stages?
Time has long been at the centre of intergenerational analysis in anthropology. We look at historical time in the Mannheimian sense: the particular era in which a set of people are born; or demographic time: household cycles over time. In ‘Lifetimes intertwined’(Whyte, Alber and Geissler 2004), a special issue of ‘Africa’ on grandparents and grandchildren, several scholars engaged with new approaches to kinship, based on time as lived with others, analysing how broader societal transformations play into this relation. At the same time, Julie Livingston reminds us of another ‘temporal perspective: experiences of aging are explicitly ‘bio-social: not only situated in cultural realms but are also about the changing body and its local biology. Separately each of these perspectives provides a specific view on generations and experiences of aging. But what would happen if we bring these perspectives together?
I am currently exploring these questions through the write-up of fieldwork conducted in northwest Tanzania (de Klerk in preparation), reading through stories and interviews. One of them that I would like to share is Consolatha’s:
‘These are my children, they came to see the visitor (me), One is ailing, he is 61 and the other is 68. They are the children I still have, I lost seven children. I raised my grandchildren, eight of them. Three have left me [to start their own lives], but five of them also died. I was about 11 in the time of Chief Ruhinda (who died in 1936), I do not know my age. I lived a long life but a life full of grief. My children died in a short time of each other. The graves are there [she points to the land adjacent to the house where the dead are buried to ensure generational continuity]. We could not even finish one year and then someone had already died again. We had a big shamba [land], but I sold so many parts of it to take care of them. [..]. I remain with three grandchildren but they are not living here, they have left. One is learning to be a driver, in Bukoba, the other one is married and the third one is in Mwanza. They left recently and I do not know if they will assist me. I am now living with the son of my son over there and with the son of the child of my daughter over there. They stay for company. I also have a granddaughter. She is not really my granddaughter, we begged her from neighbours, she helps in cooking, water and washing clothes. My strength has gone because of my worries. But I was still strong when I was raising my grandchildren, I gave them food, took out the jiggers [chigoe flees], and I beat them if they did wrong. If you compare small grandchildren and big grandchildren there is a difference. The small ones, they really are a problem, they cry when they want food and are dirty all the time. Big grandchildren don’t do so. You have times when they refuse if you ask them to fetch firewood through.
The narrative of Consolatha, elicited through several questions around growing up and growing old with grandchildren, beautifully evoked the notion of time together as shared. In the rural area where I work, grandparents have always lived with grandchildren, and grandparenthood forms an intricate part of experiences of old age. As the ever changing nature of Consolatha’s household composition shows, grandchildren and greatgrandchildren move in and out at different life stages. But grandparenthood has also been transformed. Increasing numbers of grandchildren grow up with their grandparents as main providers, for reasons including – but not only pertaining to – the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Shared time is about the making of ‘relatedness through living together’. Consolatha’s story shows how the process of physical aging brings a dimension of physicality to these experiences of shared time. At different moments in the life course Consolatha reflects on her aging body and strength: physical strength is needed to provide food to hungry children, and wash them, but also to discipline adolescent children. In advanced old age her declining strength makes her reflect on the absence of specific grandchildren and the presence of others who do provide care, but also show us how the aging body is being reconceptualised at a particular historical moment of time.
This jumble of transformations and transitions (to borrow from Danely and Lynch) show how a focus on time and the body complicates our thinking about intergenerational relations and the ‘qualities’ of care throughout the life course. Not only do we need to look at how intergenerational relations and the conflict and closeness within them are being shaped at particular moments in time but also at how these intergenerational relations itself change through time in the process of growing up and growing old together.
Danely, J. and C. Lynch eds (2013) Transitions and Transformations: Cultural Perspectives on Aging and the Life Course. New York: Berghahn Books.
De Klerk, J. Growing up and growing old together. Time and the joined life-course in northwest Tanzania (in preparation)
Whyte, S., E. Alber, W. Geissler (2004).Lifetimes intertwined: African Grandparents and Grandchildren. Africa 74(1): 1-5.
Josien de Klerk is a lecturer at Leiden University College, The Hague. She works on aging in the era of AIDS in Kenya and Tanzania, looking at informal care and self-care in the context of HIV. Her fieldwork is the basis of critical analysis of the politics around aging and care in the treatment-dominated AIDS landscape in East-Africa.
Read the companion to this post, The Importance of ‘Blood,’ Identity, and Intergenerational Relationships over the Life Course of Ugandan Children Orphaned by AIDS, by Kristen Cheney
When I was in San Diego last spring for the SPA/ACYIG Meeting (Anthropology of Children and Youth Interest Group), I attended a panel discussion on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (which only the USA and Somalia are yet to ratify).
Many of us are involved in similar political advocacy for the rights and welfare of older persons. We may work in areas of the world where these rights are debated, ignored, or threatened. In most cases, the rights of older persons are either explicitly or implicitly covered in generic human rights declarations such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). However, although positive steps were taken last August at the Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing, the UN is yet to adopt a Convention on the Rights of Older Persons. (See the pdf of the August 2012 working paper on the rights of older persons by Fredvang and Biggs here)
Realizing that the challenges and vulnerabilities faced by older adults were shared by children and youth as well, and that the AAGE and ACYIG share a common emphasis on the life course perspective, the anthropologists at the table thought it would be a good idea to to move towards building a common agenda on both advocacy or engaged anthropology issues as well as on life course research on human rights, including the distinctive ways older people and younger people are affected by climate change and natural disaster, poverty, abuse, mental health, discrimination, war and displacement, institutional living, and many other issues.
ACYIG was generous in taking the first step. Aviva Sinervo (UCSC), who edits the newsletter for ACYIG published this piece by AAGE/AALCIG member Richard Zimmer (pdf of his contribution here). Zimmer does not speak specifically to the human rights issues brought up at the workshop I attended, but he does raise the crucial issues of working across generations in communities affected by developmental disabilities. In working with these families, Zimmer highlights the need for greater anthropological/ethnographic work on the family that can draw together the complexity of individuals at different ends of the life course.
I hope that our groups can find additional ways to make additional generational links. From here, we might think about organizing a panel for the ACYIG meeting (in Charleston, SC, 12-15 February) and keep things rolling (AAA 2014?). Hope that AAGE X ACYIG this becomes a recurring theme in the news here. Email us and/or Aviva Sinervo at ACYIG if you would like to get involved or organize conference symposia/events (You can also join the ACYIG for free if you are a AAA member, or join their listserv, or like their Facebook page even if you are not!)