Date: Wed, 16 Jun 1999 11:27:16 -0500 (CDT)
From: email@example.com (Rich Winkel)
Subject: Congo: Expendable Elderly
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Church Takes In The Forgotten Senior Citizens
By Louis Okamba, IPS, 14 June 1999
MAKOUA, CONGO, June 14 (IPS) - Banished by society and rejected by their kin, the abandoned elderly people of the Congo are taken in by a special community at Kotolengo.
Run by a group of monks and nuns, Kotolengo is located near Makoua, a city on the equator 622 kilometers north of Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo.
Joseph Ekaba, 72, is one of the dozen elderly men the village found and took in after his family abandoned him.
"We found Joseph dying in his dilapidated house, totally abandoned by his family. We weren't even sure whether to lift him up because he really seemed to be at death's door. Today, we joke about it and say it's a miracle", says Sister Maria Dorotti, an Italian nun, who is also the village doctor.
Like so many other residents of Kotolengo, the only thing Ekaba suffers from is old age. In the Congo, the aged are blamed for all the misfortunes that befall the young. The chief complaint against them is that they practice witchcraft.
Jerome Itoua and his wife Anne, both Kotolengo pensioners, were exiled from their family after their oldest son died in a traffic accident.
"The fatal accident occurred in Brazzaville, but the witch doctors said that those responsible lived in Makoua. Those responsible being this poor couple", says Gerard Scheer, a Marist monk who runs Kotolengo.
"Many elderly are in such straits. Some have just been out and killed, either hanged or buried alive or sometimes burned alive," he says.
The Congolese Human Rights Monitoring Mission (OCDH) recorded in 1996 about 100 cases where elderly people, accused of witchcraft, were hung.
Kotolengo pensioners such as Ekaba believe themselves lucky to have been found by the church. "Now the dogs won't get my dead body like I feared. Thanks to the priests. I'll definitely have a normal burial when I die", Ekaba says.
Each day, the church arranges for visits to provide the old with free medical care. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are free. Each meal begins and ends with a prayer, regardless of individual religious preferences.
The Kotolengo religious community offers a copious, free meal every Tuesday to all of Makoua's senior citizens. The only requirement is that you bring your own bowl.
Several hours each Tuesday, Kotolengo becomes downright raucous. It's an anxiously awaited moment of the week, when the the chapel is transformed into a rollicking refectory for the occasion.
Achille Okonga, 62, loves Tuesdays. He dresses up smartly in his formal sergeant's uniform from the days when he was in the French colonial army.
"It's a great idea, all of us partying together. It allows us to let off some steam and to forget the constant threat that the youth represent to all us oldsters", explains Okonga.
Kotolengo is trying to enlarge its target population, and provide assistance to the chronically ill. At the moment, there are two girls and two boys who are terminal AIDS patients.
"Our mission is not to cure them, since we can't. Rather, we try to relieve the solitude which makes their condition even worse. We try to help them until the very end", Maria says.
"We also hope to educate the public through our actions about the nature of this illness (AIDs) and teach them that death is not always caused by witchcraft", she adds.
Each Sunday, the Kotolengo religious community calls upon the youth to practice tolerance and understanding toward older people.
"Everyone's going to be old in the end. It's not right when people only look after themselves and abandon their elderly", says Maria.
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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