Who is Babah Tarawally?
After fleeing Sierra Leone for the Netherlands 17 years ago and spending the first seven of those years filing an asylum application, Babah Tarawally began working for independent media outlets in Africa. Alongside this work, he contributes stories and columns to several newspapers. His novel De god met de blauwe ogen (‘The blue-eyed god’) was published in 2010 by KIT. Babah lives with his partner and two daughters in the Netherlands.
“Have you ever seen a grey-haired African living in The Netherlands?” a friend once asked me. I was taken aback by this question. They are here of course. But the fact that I could not immediately think of one made me curious. Ever since, I have been looking around, hoping to find someone who fits the profile.
To most Africans, the Netherlands is not a place for the elderly. As a result, most Africans would prefer to spend their last days back home. Ageing there is considered a blessing – people grow old and attain special status. “If one has to grow old it should be in Africa,” they say. Yes, this is the sentiment, despite the fact that life expectancy in the Netherlands is 80 years, while the average in Africa is 54.
Why is that? Despite the quality of life and the high standard of living in the Netherlands, the elderly are not regarded as an added value to society. Instead, they are seen as a burden, breaking the backbone of the health care system. As Dutch health minister Edith Schippers once remarked, elderly care costs three times as much here as in Germany and twice as much as in France. The minister promoted drastic savings reforms by moving away from large institutions and encouraging home- and community-based care.
So I must ask myself: Could the Dutch system be slowly moving towards the African way? Have the Dutch suddenly realized that happiness in old age cannot be predicted by cash amounts? Rather, it is measured by the love and care of family, friends and community. People in Africa grow old and are simply content with that. This cannot be said of the elderly in the Netherlands. Here they complain of boredom and are deemed unable to contribute to society in any meaningful way. It’s as though lessons learned from the past – and the voices they have to tell them – are exchanged for their pension.
The African source of knowledge is not found in libraries. It is stored for safekeeping in memories. Because they retain the oral history of our peoples, the elderly are given the same reverence that the Western world has for books. As the adage of Mali’s Bambara tribe goes: If old age stops the hunter from going hunting, he must be content with telling his ancient exploits.
Read all the other columns in the series Africans going Dutch.