If you have plenty of money at the beginning of your life, either by inheritance, winning a lottery or success in a business and you are careful in handling your money, you may have continued to safeguard your money and the advantage it brings for as long as you remain alive. One thing that cannot remain with you is your youthfulness.
Every minute everyone grows. Some young ones are so busy enjoying themselves that they do not give a thought to the future. But then one day when they pick up a comb and look in the mirror they notice that their hair at the centre of their heads has either disappeared or changed from black to white — they have aged. If they are rich they may be spared the problems that poor elderly people encounter. But there are other problems no old person can escape — rich or poor.
Some of the crude members of our communities indiscriminately use the word Madala to refer to an elderly person. When someone has addressed me as madala I have sometimes pretended not to have heard him. Whenever he has repeated calling me madala, madala I have retorted; “my name is not madala or what do you mean by madala.”
Chichewa has borrowed some words from other languages which it uses in a different sense from the original.
The word madala is chilapa-lapa or so-called kitchen kaffier corrupted from the Zulu or Nguni word mdala. Among the Nguni or Ngoni to be called mdala is as respectable as it is to be called Mzee in Swahili. It means senior citizen or elderly person.
The word madala has a derogatory connotation. It implies someone too old to be of any use. It was coined on farms or mines south of the Zambezi to refer to those who were of no further use as labourers because they had grown old.
In traditional, societies where extended families are intact, to grow old was not seen as becoming useless but becoming a source of wisdom and knowledge. An unnamed scholar in Mali said in Africa when an old man dies, it is as if half the library is burnt.
In life of urbanisation and industrialisation, the advent of old age brings with it multitude of problems. The extended family system has declined. Grandchildren now grow away from their grandparents. Old age brings loneliness and feelings of worthlessness. An old person may have vivid memories of the past, but there is no audience to address.
After you have been working for many years holding prestigious jobs, retirement can be emotionally unsettling — you are no longer a principal of the college, a chief executive or army commander. Those who were kowtowing to you now just pass you by — they have transferred their loyalties or flattery to others. In old age, many people have less income than they had when they were working. And yet it is in old age that medical bills shoot up because of chronic illness. Those who save for the future are wise. However, as days go by the purchasing power of their savings declines because of inflation.
The longer you live the more lonely you become because relatives and friends have died. It is gratifying that there is a ministry in Malawi with a mandate to care for old people. If it is to be really helping to the needy it must be guided by a social survey which should highlight the problems old people are facing.
As I wrote this piece, there was a newspaper article in front of me which states that a once-colourful gentleman in the politics of Malawi is destitute and being threatened with eviction from a Malawi Housing Corporation house because he is in arrears with rentals.
He is not an isolated problem. There are many old people who are living in their own houses which they bought or build 30 or 40 years ago when they had enough money to pay the numerous rates. They no longer have enough money to settle the bills which are brought to them with threats. Old people ought to be cared for by the younger generation. The young must not forget that they too will become old one day, if they are lucky enough to live a long life in these days when death visits the young and old alike.
My advice to the young generation is read documents which talk about how to prepare for old age and take the advice you find there.