Senior citizenship has challenges, but the perks are more enjoyable

Friday March 17 2017

Following your heart-warming responses to my

Following your heart-warming responses to my rap on “turning back” the age clock, I thought I would let you into the real secrets of enjoying senior citizenship. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Following your heart-warming responses to my rap on “turning back” the age clock, I thought I would let you into the real secrets of enjoying senior citizenship.

These are the perks, the special benefits, of being elderly. Our recently and dearly departed Mwalimu, Sheikh Nabhany, used to say in his leisurely Kiamu, “Mzee ni mtu wa kufanyiwa zema (an elder is a person who deserves good treatment)”.

This may sound like a tall order in our society, with its idolatrous glorification of youth. But it is a lovely virtue in every sane and decent culture. After all, longevity is normal these days and, rather sooner than later, today’s strapping youth will be the elders of the neighbourhood.

Speaking of the enjoyable aspects of old age should not, however, blind us to its challenges. Among these, at least four readily come to mind. There is the diminishing strength and energy, the frequently failing health, the reality of unfulfilled dreams and the loneliness occasioned by the final departure of our beloved contemporaries.


The antidote to all this is the ability, indeed the tough determination, to count our blessings. Actually, the real secret of positive seniority lies in the delicate balance between the realistic, even stoic, acceptance of the deprivations and limitations against the emphatic appreciation of the privileges of our status.

Three of the privileges that have been strongly on my mind since we last chatted are authority, laughter and celebration. I have been noting that, even in the case of friends who have “gone to a better land I know”, what is sweetest about their memory lies in the words of wisdom they bequeathed to me, the humour and laughter we shared, and the special  moments of experience in which we participated.

You may remember my telling you of such memories recently in the case of Ali Mazrui, Francis Imbuga, Mary Kizito, the Daystar mass communication dame, Barnabas Kasigwa, the drama maestro, and, most recently, the Swahili linguist and poet, Ahmed Sheikh Nabhany. Curiously, Molly Maureen Mahood, my professor in Dar es Salaam, was still alive when I wrote about her a few months ago.


Well, she finally passed away about a fortnight ago. Of course, I was saddened when I got the news from my friend and best man, Alastair Niven, whom I also mentioned last week. But my main response to Molly’s departure was a deep appreciation of her work, and especially her contribution to my personal and academic development.

I remembered how she had adopted me from my earliest days in Dar es Salaam, taking the trouble to inform my parents when I fell ill, and eventually packing me off to York, to deepen my understanding of Shakespeare. I savoured memories of her inviting me to Oxford, her alma mater, and taking me on a guided tour of the great university city. I could go on ad infinitum.

But, coming back to the specifics of our perks, let us consider what we called authority. Normally, living long bestows on one a certain kind of credibility. After all, when you have been there longer than most of those around you, you become a sort of reference point. People ask you because they believe you “must have seen it all”, and in many cases you have.

I enjoy being asked about the way things were, but I also realise it is a serious responsibility. We seniors must guard against the temptation of being “too clever by a half”, pretending to pontificate about things we could not possibly have known or understood. I have, for example mentioned to you the perennial question I am asked by my Kenyan friends, if I was a contemporary, at Makerere, of Mstaafu (President) Mwai Kibaki!

I have learnt to explain patiently that I joined Makerere in 1968, while Mzee Kibaki left Makerere, as a lecturer, in 1961. He got his London University first-class honours degree at Makerere in 1955, when I was eleven years old! You can see why the question never fails to amuse me.

Talking of amusement, I mentioned laughter as one of the treats of old age. A good laugh is one of the sweetest blessings of life, and the best laugh is a laugh at yourself. So, “with mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come,” as Shakespeare has it in Merchant of Venice.


I have mentioned elsewhere that there are respectable scientific studies supporting the benefits of humour and laughter, proving the age old adage that “laughter is the best medicine”. A good sense of humour is a great asset to any human being, and even more so to people of advancing age. It is a refreshing and an invigorating celebration of life.

Speaking of celebration, it appears I just cannot have enough of it. Practically every day that dawns brings me a cause for celebration. As you read this, I will probably be in Yala, at the Grace Ogot Mausoleum, celebrating with Prof Bethwell Ogot the life, work and love of that magnificent woman.

Last week I was basking in the glory of the publication of a collection of Kiswahili short stories, Siri ya Bwanyenye (the secret of the exploiter), where I appear alongside such Kiswahili heavyweights as Rayya Timmamy, Mlinzi Mulokozi, Mwenda Mbatiah and Clara Momanyi. I know I am not worthy, but then, I am also sure I am exceptionally blessed.

Incidentally, earlier this week I was in Entebbe with Kiswahili experts from all over the region, fine-tuning the plans and programmes of the East African Kiswahili Commission. Led by our Executive Secretary, Prof Inyani Simala, we met in the sumptuously beautiful gardens of the hotel where Bill Clinton stayed when he visited Uganda. As I listened to the deliberations against the gentle lap of the waves of Lake Victoria, itself a powerful symbol of East African unity, I could not help but celebrate the fulfilment of my lifelong dream of a Kiswahili-speaking Jumuiya.

You can see why I cannot spare any time for moping about getting old.


Prof Bukenya is one of the leading scholars of English and Literature in East Africa.