‘Adults guide children for a while, after which children begin to guide the elderly.’ This is a loose translation of the Igbo proverb, ‘Okenye –du-kuta nwata, nwata e’dube okenye.’ The Igbos are one of the major ethnic groups in Southeastern Nigeria.
In fact, no one English sentence can adequately translate the essence of this Igbo proverb, which captures both in the moment and in the future the dynamics between vulnerable elders and the younger generation.
Humans and Mammals
Animals behave in a different way. When they have developed strong wings and can fetch food, and have mastered their swoops through the trees, birds take off, abandoning their parents, never to return again.
After mastering how to ambush prey and go for the throat with their ferocious fangs, young cubs vanish into the wild, untroubled as to what will become of their ageing mother.
Unlike animals, humans tend to maintain a relationship with their parents, to return the favor they received as children.
My sixteen year old son offered a cogent reason for this. Human offspring spend a longer time in the vulnerable learning stage, and hence have a stronger emotional connection with parents.
My Dad and I
Relationships between children and parents, young and old are not always pleasant. Indeed some kids never get along with the adults in their life. The cause of conflict arises from age differences: events are perceived differently, and situations interpreted differently too.
On many occasions when I was a child, Dad confiscated my soccer ball. We had returned to the town of Onitsha after a three-year hiatus in my home village of Akokwa, where my family had taken refuge during the Nigerian-Biafran civil war. At age 8, a dirt street in front of our house became my soccer field.
‘Don’t play in the middle of the road,’ Dad repeatedly reprimanded me. Because his pleas fell on deaf ears, he resorted to confiscating my football. Where I had a blind spot, my father saw impending danger.
Dad and I, Thirty Years later
Thirty years later, we visited the village one day, close to sunset. Dad was in his seventies and had wandered off to inspect an open water tank. I glimpsed him, fully bent over at the waist, checking the level of water in the reservoir. A moment of disorientation could have tipped him over. It was my turn to draw his attention to impending danger.
‘Come out, Dad,’ I said. And a disaster was avoided. Such switching of the role, when a child looks out for a parent, is the spirit of the Igbo proverb I mentioned earlier.
If Igbo ancestors were the only people who anticipated a role reversal between the old and the young, I would be amazed. I am inclined to believe that a similar code of conduct is expressed and desirable in many other cultures and ethnic groups.
What a different world it would be if people could find reasons to love instead of a basis to hate. Being there when our parents, uncles, aunts and elders need care and assistance is one of the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves and to generations to come. We will come to reap the seeds we have sown.
Mental Impairment with age
Cognitive impairment is a handicap which afflicts many of our seniors and elders. They can lose track of distinguishing right from wrong. Rational judgments can dwindle to the level of a naïve child. That’s why caring for the elderly includes the provision of a safe environment and protection from self and external harm.
But as many older people are now no longer supported by their children, who have had to move away in search of work, this proverb is in danger of proving untrue in this generation.
Assisting elders in my hometown, Akokwa, and across the Imo State of Nigeria is what our organization does. We hope you will support us. Your donations will help expand our services to benefit more seniors.