Tuesday, October 30, 2012

About life and death

My grandma died today. She was 2 months short of being 100 years old.

For the past 6 months I've been living in a country where that longevity is inconceivable. In Mozambique, life expectancy hovers around 40 years old. That would be me. In Mozambique, only 3% of the population makes it past 65 years old. That's my parents. In Mozambique, almost half the population is under 15 years old. In the countries I come from, the age structure for the population looks like an inverted pyramid: there are many more older people than younger ones, and the population is growing older. Not in Mozambique.

Three generations
Let me translate this into images. In Uruguay, it means getting into a bus and be surrounded by a sea of white and grey heads. Mozambique, on the other hand, looks more like the swarm of hundreds of bouncing, laughing, dancing 6- and 7-year-olds at the primary school near our apartment. Those differences in the demographics of a country's population have huge consequences in everyday life, the choices one makes, the problems a society faces.

During the past 6 months I found myself often in the (for me) unusual situation of being the oldest and most experienced in the room. I also found myself turning around to look with tenderness at the rare white-haired, wrinkled person I passed by on the streets. I wanted to go, hug them, and say: "Good for you! You made it!" They would truly deserve it: surviving to an advance age is not easy here. According to UNICEF Moçambique, for a child to make it pass their 5th birthday, they'll have to overcome from "birth complications to pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria, to a lack of clean water and sanitation, to nutrition problems." I wouldn't have made it.

Yet, despite how difficult it is to reach old age, old people don't seem to be valued. Too often, an old person in Mozambique is a marginalized person, someone who can become a victim accused of witchcraft. I'm guessing that has something to do with scarce resources that makes older people be seen as a burden, or a freak of nature - but I'm still wrapping my head around that one.

And then, there's the crazy number of children and young people. That means that the country is vibrating with new energy, pure promise and potential. The buzz is contagious, but it also means you have to provide education and jobs for all these kids or face a potential time bomb in the not-so-distant future. According to the CIA World Factbook "[c]ountries with young populations (high percentage under age 15) need to invest more in schools ... The age structure can also be used to help predict potential political issues. For example, the rapid growth of a young adult population unable to find employment can lead to unrest." When you pair that with the adult population dying of AIDS at an alarming rate, leaving so many orphaned children behind, well...

I had studied and written about these issues before, but living around that reality, you learn what those numbers and statistics mean at an individual level. You learn that funerals are such a common social occasion. That you might from one day to another become responsible for raising 3 or 4 other children from a relative who just passed away. In that context, planning doesn't make that much sense at all. Anything you try to accomplish needs to be filtered through the lenses of what a Mozambican life span is, because, if you expect to die at 40 your priorities are likely to be very different than if you expect to live up to a 100.

And the fourth generation - spanning 98 years.

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