This past week, I had occasion to sit and chat with three senior citizens belonging to rural Sindh. One, an elderly gentleman, was sitting among a group of people who were discussing a dispute between religious sects. They were all young men who were vociferously arguing their viewpoints in raised voices. The soft-spoken elderly gentleman waved his hand asking for attention from the crowd. He spoke such wise words of peace and unity that while listening to him I couldn’t make out which sect he belonged to or which side he was representing. Suddenly, one man stood up and shouted at him. “You’re an old man, what do you know, be quiet and sit down,” he said. The elderly gentleman walked quietly away and later told me the person who shouted at him was his son. He then explained to me the history of religious conflict and the factors that precipitate it and how the youth can be guided away from this confrontation and towards religious harmony. This simple farmer, carrying a walking stick and leaning in to hear clearly, had a wealth of knowledge and wisdom to share. There was no one to listen.
A few days later, I visited a neighbourhood of village homes to meet with the women residents there. An old woman, with a broad toothless smile, sat fanning herself upon a charpai with her walking frame next to her. While the women gathered and were sharing their everyday difficulties, she sat listening intently. Some women complained about having to use buffalo dung to fuel their stoves in the absence of gas connections, some had health problems to discuss and others were looking for means to earn an income since the men of the household were drug or gambling addicts. The elderly woman took charge of the proceedings, organised the women into a group and carefully explained each woman’s particular life situation and the difficulties she faced. She sought nothing for herself, but with her experience and depth of understanding, she presented everyone’s problems along with pertinent solutions.
Then I met another elderly lady and we got chatting about her life. She was now a grandmother but had spent her entire life in impoverishment. Widowed at a young age, she was left with five sons to rear and no family support. She described how she would spend her days: waking up before dawn, making ice, preparing ice-cream and selling cold drinks from her home, rushing in between to do the sweeping, cooking and laundry at home, then staying up late into the night embroidering fabric to sell. From what she would earn, she would join savings committees and then invest in goats. She showed me her roughened palms and talked about how deeply she values that struggle. Today, she said, hard work just isn’t valued the same way.
This got me thinking about the role of village elders. Normally, the term ‘village elder’ refers to an influential male member of the village. Usually this is someone who weilds power, is relatively wealthy and through land holdings has influence over the lives of farmers who work his land. He is approached whenever a village dispute needs a mediator. He need not be elderly of course. A woman is almost never considered a village elder. In truth though, the real elders are our senior citizens; deeply valuable and severely undervalued.
These elders are our true source of guidance. They’re the ones with decades of life experience; an irreplaceable asset. They’re the ones who’ve been through the trials and turns of life and learnt lessons along the way. They’re the ones who have the encountered problems and found solutions before us.
In the village context, their contribution is all the more important. Village communities, while closely knit, also tend to be prone to disputes. Moreover, as times change and exposure to media changes aspirations and lifestyles, the fabric of society goes through a period of adjustment. And in the near-complete absence of government, villagers are left with a host of communal issues to deal with; how to get government teachers to run schools, how to ensure healthcare for residents and how to deal with overflowing sewerage drains just to name a few.
In all these areas, our elderly are a wonderful source of help. Men are usually retired from jobs or have handed over farming responsibilities to sons and grandsons. Women have also taken a less active role in household life, as daughters and daughters-in-law take over responsibilities. As a result, these seniors have time on their hands and often they are restless having lived busy and full lives. Moreover, they are eager to participate in village life.
In disputes, the elderly can provide perspective that is coolly thought out. As families adjust to new times and the introduction to technology in some form, seniors can provide a sense of grounding that’s so essential as one adapts to change. And most importantly, in the effort to improve education, health and infrastructure, input from seniors is vital because it also includes advice on how to prevent issues from becoming too large to handle.
Moreover, preserving our positive traditions and rich culture is becoming an increasingly difficult task; more and more emphasis is being placed on uniformity and progress and in that race, a lot is being left behind. Our elderly men and women can help us understand and promote our customs among the young and instill in them a lot of the pride and identity that’s being eroded.
Our Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) said about senior citizens: respect and value your elderly. They have lived a long life and done more good deeds than you. And value the young because they’ve lived less and committed less sins than you.
With a little compassion and patience, this is not difficult to do.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 12th, 2015.
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