Physical exercises as part of an NGO health programme to build older people’s strength and independence in Kagera Region Tanzania (Photograph by author. Please do not reproduce without permission)
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.