Growing up, the cardinal rule of my existence was that elderly people- all elderly people- deserve respect, by virtue of being old. The sense of respect for the elders is a part of our African cultural values, centred in our belief that the elderly are repositories of wisdom and history, carrying the knowledge of the hidden trails of our journey as a people from centuries past. We respect and obey our elders, deferring to them to make critical decisions because we believe they are inherently wise. Aging is symbolic of personal growth, personal strength, and resourcefulness and as such is considered an achievement. Spirit mediums such as Sekuru Kaguvi were revered, and, in consulting them, my people believed they were consulting oracles, trusting in their wisdom and foresight to provide guidance and direction.
As Emeka Emeakaroha argues, quoting William Conton: “Africans generally have deep and ingrained respect for old age, and even when we can find nothing to admire in an old man, we will not easily forget that his grey hairs have earned him right to courtesy and politeness.”
It is uncharacteristic of this innate sense of respect for the elderly to ridicule them and worse still to openly laugh at their misfortune. That is why the reactions to Mugabe’s fall call for interrogation of why many people rejoiced at such a tragic event. Why, when we are taught to respect elders whether they are right or wrong, have many young Zimbabweans on social media found pleasure in poking fun at our leader? What happened to the unwritten rule that all old people deserve love, care and above all respect?
A number of things are clear to me. First; there is an expectation that the last years of the elderly’s lives should be less pressured. Elders are expected to retire and enjoy their last days reminiscing over their youth and years of past activity. Second; elders are expected to be wise enough to know when their time is up; ceding power and handing over certain responsibilities to those around them. This idea of kutonga kusvika madhongi amera nyanga is the reason why some people are finding this unfortunate incident funny and using it to ridicule the President.
Third, there is no shame in falling per se; in fact watching an elder falling should ignite feelings of compassion and empathy. Ordinarily, those in the vicinity should have rushed to prevent the fall, rather than getting as many pictures as possible.However the indignity that the fall attracts is linked to the fact that a90 year old has been in power for over 34 years in which many things have gone awry. He has refused to let go of the power, including the option of letting a close ally succeed him, claiming he is as fit as a fiddle and has the energy of a 9 year old. That fall showed that that may not be the case.
The trip and fall symbolises, to many, the downfall of an untouchable figure. In a moment of his weakness, those who ordinarily have no voice to criticise him saw their opportunity to lash back. To mind comes the assassination of Julius Caesar. When he walked into the Senate Chamber, the plotters of his assassination surrounded him. As he attempted to get away, he tripped and fell; and lying defenceless on the lower steps of the portico, Rome’s most powerful emperor was stabbed 23 times to his death.
I find this whole incident around Mugabe’s fall and Zimbabweans on social media’s reactions to it, as sad as it is tragic. Sad because these are the years he should be reminiscing over the years of leadership past and reflecting on how the current leaders are getting it right or wrong. Tragic because it is a reflection of who we have become as a society; bitter, vengeful, sadistic even as we derive pleasure from other people’s pain. Many will claim that it is the years of repression and censorship, death and destruction, violation of human rights, lawlessness and subjection to abject poverty that have made us who we are.
Whatever the case may be, when an elder’s fall becomes epic for its hilarity rather than its ill fortune then we know there is something really wrong with our society. But then again, Satire has become our only means of protest.