Category Archives: women elders

Young and Old Starve in Niger Amidst Markets Filled With Food

Photo: Oxfam

International aid agencies have issued emergency appeals about the rising famine in the West African nations of Niger and Chad, which could eventually threaten millions. The Guardian reports today

Starving people in drought-stricken west Africa are being forced to eat leaves and collect grain from ant hills, say aid agencies, warning that 10 million people face starvation across the region.

With food prices soaring and malnourished livestock dying, villagers were turning to any sources of food to stay alive, said Charles Bambara, Oxfam officer for the west African region. “People are eating wild fruit and leaves, and building ant hills just to capture the tiny amount of grain that the ants collect inside…

In Niger, which the United Nations classifies as the world’s least developed country, starving families are eating flour mixed with wild leaves and boiled plants. More than 7 million people – almost half the population – currently face food insecurity in the country, making it the hardest hit by the crisis. According to UN agencies, 200,000 children need treatment for malnutrition in Niger alone. “Niger is at crisis point now and we need to act quickly before this crisis becomes a full-blown humanitarian disaster,” said Caroline Gluck, an Oxfam representative in the country.

The real tragedy–and travesty–lies in the fact that there is food available in Niger, but starving people cannot afford to buy it.

With food prices spiralling, people are being forced to slaughter malnourished livestock, traditionally the only form of income. “When you walk through the markets, you can see that there is food here. The problem is that the ability to buy it has disappeared. People here depend on livestock to support themselves, but animals are being killed on the edge of exhaustion, and that means they are being sold for far less money. And on top of that, the cost of food basics has risen,” explained Gluck. Compounding the crisis, thousands of animals have starved to death as villagers use animal fodder to feed themselves…

“This is just the beginning of the traditional hunger period, and people have already been forced to sell their livestock. This is very early for the alarm bells to be ringing, before Niger has even reached the start of the most critical part of the food calendar. You can imagine three to four months down the line how shocking the situation will be,” said Gluck…”West Africa has traditionally not been very high on the developed world’s priority list. The question now is how many people do we have to see die before the world will act?” she said.

In “Freemarkets and Famine in Niger,” the Guardian‘s Jeevan Vasagar writes that during the most recent famine in Niger, in 2005, “free market dogma stopped the government giving out free food to the starving.” He warns that this disaster could easily be repeated. Other analysts blamed the 2005 famine in large part on the economic policies of the IMF and EU, which contributed to a precipitous rise in the prices of staple grains.

This year, global economic factors, combined with a recent coup in Niger, are once again compounding a crisis caused by drought, and the toll in lives will be high. Just how high depends upon what the international community and Niger’s government do next.  One aid official told the Guardian that if relief does not come quickly, the crisis could reach the proportions of the 1984 famine in Ethiopia, “during which an estimated 1 million people died due to drought and a slow response to the crisis both within the country and internationally.”

Photo: Rachel Palmer/Save the Children

The photographs already making their way out of Niger are heartbreaking and horrifying. Like the news reports, they tend to focus on children, who make up half of Niger’s population. Nearly 380,000 children are at risk of starvation in the next few months, according to Save the Children. 

In the 2005 Niger famine, the UN identified the elderly and the sick, along with children, as the “most vulnerable groups,” who would be “on the brink of being wiped out” without substantial aid. The Guardian reported that older people were often the last to be fed even when help arrived: “As aid agencies focus their scant resources on saving malnourished babies and children, the elderly are the forgotten victims of the crisis in Niger.” Older women, in particular, usually fell at the end of the line.

Oxfam is taking donations for its emergency response in West Africa here. Save the Children’s emergency appeal for Niger is here. To support emergency aid programs specifically targeting the needs of old people, donations can be made to HelpAge International.

South Africa’s World Cup Grannies

The first World Cup to be played on African soil opened Friday in Johannesburg. Not the least of the amazing things the competition has brought to light is a soccer team of 35 South African grandmothers, ages 49 to 84, called Vakhegula Vakhegula (Grannies Grannies).

The New York Times reported on the Grannies last week, after the team played an exhibition game.

From the team’s meager beginning [five years ago], Vakhegula Vakhegula have become well known in the region, and news of the team has spread to the United States. The team received an invitation to compete in the Veterans Cup, a tournament for teams with players 30 or older, next month in Lancaster, Mass…

The grandmothers will not be mistaken for a national team; they play at a deliberate but purposeful pace and with plenty of passion. They play on a modest park field, a world away from the new stadium, named after Mokaba, in nearby Polokwane, which is hosting four first-round World Cup games.

[Beka] Ntsanwisi’s decision to found the team came out of her own sense of personal challenge.

In 2003, she learned she had colon cancer; by 2005, she was using a wheelchair. In the process of her treatment, Ntsanwisi visited a number of public hospitals and was disturbed by the level of treatment of elderly patients, especially women. Many were despondent or confused. She thought that regular exercise would be beneficial. That exercise evolved into soccer.

The team’s center and the oldest member, 83-year-old Nora Makhubela, told an Al Jazeera reporter: “I have had stroke six times, before I started playing, I couldn’t walk properly, my legs used to ache a lot, now I feel better, I can even run faster than you!”

Other members of the Grannies told the Times that the team had become their family, helping them through difficult times. One had lost a husband; another, eight of her twelve children. [Beka] Ntsanwisi’s cancer is remission, “but even if I die, I just want to leave a legacy, something that people will remember me by,” she said. “Even if I’m not here, somebody will say, ‘Beka started this.’ ”

This video provides a glimpse of Vakhegula Vakhegula in action. (Now, here’s a subject they ought to make into a reality TV show about elders. Fat chance.)

Auschwitz Survivor Raps Against Racism

The London Independent has a story today about 85-year-old musician and Holocaust survivor Esther Bejarano, who is collaborating with a multiethnic hip-hop band with an anti-racist message. Their first album, Per La Vita, was released last year, and a documentary about the band is being shown in German schools.

Esther Bejarano says music helped to keep her alive as a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz. Now, 65 years after the liberation of the Nazi death camp, she has teamed up with a German hip-hop band to get her anti-racism message to today’s youth.

“It’s a clash of everything: age, culture, style,” Ms Bejarano admitted in an interview to mark Holocaust Memorial Day yesterday. “But we all love music and share a common goal: we’re fighting against racism and discrimination.”…

The daughter of a Jewish cantor from Saarbrücken in western Germany, Ms Bejarano studied piano at home until the Nazis came to power and tore her family apart. She was deported to Auschwitz, where she became a member of the girls’ orchestra, playing the accordian every time trains full of Jews from across Europe arrived at the death camp.

“We played with tears in our eyes,” Ms Bejarano remembered. “The new arrivals came in waving and applauding us, but we knew they would be taken directly to the gas chambers.” Although she survived, her parents and sister, Ruth, were killed.

For 20 years, Ms Bejarano has played music from the past – Yiddish melodies, tunes from the ghetto and Jewish resistance songs – with her children Edna and Yoram in a Hamburg-based band called Coincidence.

About two years ago, Kutlu Yurtseven, a Turkish rapper from Microphone Mafia, asked her about a collaboration to combat the growing racism and anti-Semitism in Germany. The octogenarian thought hip-hop “was really a bit too loud” but saw it as a way to reach Germany’s youth.

“We want to keep the memories of the Holocaust alive, but at the same time look into the future and encourage young people to take a stand against new Nazis,” she said. “I know what racism can lead to and the members of Microphone Mafia are immigrants and have experienced their share of discrimination as well.”…

Their audiences range from teenage immigrants at urban youth centres to an older crowd that might be expected to favour a more classical approach. “They love it,” Ms Bejarano said. “Even some of the older guests climb on the chairs and dance.” She said it can be exhausting to perform with young people, but she chuckled: “I’ve educated the boys. We’ve lowered the volume and I told them to stop jumping around all the time.”

Mr Yurtseven said: “I asked Esther how she can make music after Auschwitz, and she said if they had taken the music from her, she would have died.”

78 Year Old Jailed for Senate Anti-War Protest

Tetaz at an anti-war protest inside the Hart Senate Office Building, 2007. Photo by Lori Perdue.

Just a week ago, members of Congress were celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr., with lofty paeans to his methods of nonviolent protest. But these platitudes go out the window when it comes to protests within their own decorous halls of power. On Monday, a D.C. Superior Court judge, part of the federal system, sent 78-year-old Eve Tetaz to jail because her chosen form of dissent, while nonviolent, “demeaned the act of protest”–and because she has simply refused to stop. 

Since 20005, Tetaz has been arrested 20 times and convicted 14 times for anti-war protests involving Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo. Tetaz told the judge: “I believe that nonviolent protest against government policies will continue to be the only authentic form of individual political action.”  But she has mounted most of her protests in a city that, since 9/11, has taken on the character of a moated fort. In our nation’s capital today, it is notoriously difficult to mount any sort of demonstration, and civil disobedience is not tolerated. As reported in Tuesday’s Washington Post:

On Monday, an obviously frustrated Judge Lynn Leibovitz sentenced Tetaz to 25 days in jail and placed her on probation for a year after a jury found her guilty of disorderly conduct in October. Prosecutors say Tetaz and at least three other people attended a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing May 21, stood up as Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) began to speak and yelled out: “No more blood money! Stop the war!” Police said Tetaz and the other protesters then threw dollar bills into the aisle of the Senate chamber. The money had been covered in Tetaz’s blood as well as the blood of the other demonstrators, drawn from each by a doctor friend. 

Standing next to Jack Baringer, her court-appointed attorney, and wearing a T-shirt that read, “I’m not disturbing the peace, I’m disturbing the war,” Tetaz often smiled as Leibovitz criticized her decision to disrupt a Senate speech and pass out blood-tainted dollars. The move, Leibovitz said, “demeaned the action of protest” and bordered on assault. “Ms. Tetaz has repeatedly over time ignored court orders and our laws,” the judge added. She sentenced Tetaz to 75 days in jail but suspended 50 days — unless Tetaz is arrested again while on probation for 18 months.

Tetaz is the model of what I call a radical geezer, whose idea of “retirement” is having plenty of time to devote to the thing that matters to her most–her work with the group Witness Against Torture. Tetaz doesn’t let her “physical limitations” stop her, according to the Post:

She carries bags of medications for glaucoma and heart trouble. She also has leukemia, which doctors said they can treat with medication. Judges must speak loudly or she has to wear headphones to be able to hear the proceedings.

Widowed since 1995 and with no children, Tetaz says she’s the perfect demonstrator. She has no responsibilities. She is retired after spending 30 years teaching English in D.C. public schools including Eastern and Dunbar, as well as a brief time in 1948 when she taught school in Harlem, N.Y.

Protesting isn’t new to Tetaz. During the Vietnam War, she and other demonstrators were arrested on the steps of the Capitol. She spent three days in jail. “It’s often the poor, uneducated, inner-city kid who has no other recourse than the streets or the Army,” she said, days before Monday’s sentencing. “I’m fighting for him.”

Tetaz, like many of her fellow demonstrators, is spiritual. She often speaks of wanting to “follow Jesus” and lives a simple life in an Adams Morgan apartment with two cats and a bird. “In everything I do,” she said, flashing her large smile, “I want to be a reflection of my faith.”

Granny D on Campaign Finance Reform

Doris “Granny D” Haddock won national attention when she walked across the country in 1999-2000, at age 90, to support the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform initiative. The lifelong liberal activist from New Hampshire also ran for the Senate in 2004, was arrested at the Capitol for reading the Declaration of Independence, and authored a memoir entitled Granny D: Never Too Old to Raise a Little Hell.

On Sunday, her 100th birthday, Granny D issued the following plan to counteract the Supreme Court ruling on corporate campaign contributions:

If your brother-in-law has a road paving company, it is clear that you, as an elected official, must not vote to give him a contract, as you have a conflict of interest. Do you have any less of an ethical conflict if you are voting for that contract not because he is a brother-in-law, but because he is a major donor to your campaign? Should you ethically vote on health issues if health companies fund a large chunk of your campaign? The success of your campaign, after all, determines your future career and financial condition. You have a conflict.

Let us say, through the enactment of new laws, that a politician can no longer take any action, or arrange any action by another official, if the action, in the opinion of that legislative body’s civil service ethics officer, would cause special gain to a major donor of that official’s campaign. The details of such a program will be daunting, but we need to figure them out and get them into law.

Remarkably, many better corporations have an ethical review process to prevent their executives from making political contributions to officials who decide issues critical to that corporation. Should corporations have a higher standard than the United States Congress? And many state governments have tighter standards, too. Should not Congress be the flagship of our ethical standards? Where is the leadership to make this happen this year?

This kind of reform should also be pushed in the 14 states where citizens have full power to place proposed statutes on the ballot and enact them into law. About 70% of voters would go for a ballot measure to “toughen our conflict of interest law,” I estimate. In the scramble that would follow, either free campaign advertising would be required as a condition of every community’s contract with cable providers (long overdue), or else there would be a mad dash for public campaign financing programs on the model of Maine, Arizona, and Connecticut. Maybe both things would happen, which would be good.

Long Live Margaret and Helen

I must be a little slow on the uptake. It’s been eight months since I started this blog, which is supposed to be for and about “pissed-off progressive old folks,” yet somehow it’s taken me this long to learn about two fellow bloggers who are supremely qualified for that title. I mean Helen and Margaret, longtime best friends in their eighties who live in Texas and Maine, respectively, and blog at

The banner photo alone is worth the price of admission, and the posts by Helen and Margaret (mostly Helen) are worth reading just for their titles, though you shouldn’t stop there. Recently these titles have included “Pat Buchanan Is a Cracker,” “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Dick Cheney?” and “My God, Bush Was an Idiot!”, along with equal-opportunity evicerations like “Bye Bye Evan Bayh” (on the Democrats’ sellout on health care reform). 

I know you must be sick of reading about Sarah Palin and her over-hyped resignation. (As my teachers used to say when some other kid was getting a lot of attention by acting like an asshole, “Just ignore him and he’ll stop.”) But try to find the wherewithal to read Helen’s post on the subject. To give you just a taste:

Things are getting tough and once again she is trying to hide behind that dysfunctional family of hers. She actually stood there and talked about how the Palins had a family meeting and everyone agreed it was time for her to step down as Governor.   Well, I call that bullshit.  The only family meetings the Palins have usually involve someone peeing on an early pregnancy test stick.


Supreme Court Upholds the Pension Gender Gap

At a time when most old people have taken a hit to their retirement income, far more older women than older men are living on the edge of survival. A case before the Supreme Court would have helped a few women to slightly narrow the substantial gap between women and men’s retirement earnings. But the Court, in a  7-2 vote on Monday, decided to let the disparity stand.

Until 1978, it was legal for employers to discriminate on the  basis of preganancy. So women who took pregnancy leaves were in some cases given less credit toward their pensions than people who took leaves for other medical conditions. In the case before the Supreme Court, a group of women who formerly worked for AT&T were suing to have  maternity leaves taken before passage of the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) calculated fully into retirement benefits. While a lower court ruled in their favor, the majority on the Supreme Court decided that the law was not meant to be applied retroactively.

But since the pensions in question are being calculated now, long after passage of the PDA, dissenting Justices Ginsberg and Breyer argued that the discrimination is, effectively, taking place now as well. Ginsberg wrote in her dissent that “attitudes about pregnancy and childbirth …have sustained pervasive, often law-sanctioned, restrictions on a woman’s place among paid workers and active citizens.” The women workers, she said:

will receive, for the rest of their lives, lower pension benefits than colleagues who worked for AT&T no longer than they did. They will experience this discrimination not simply because of the adverse action to which they were subjected pre-PDA. Rather they are harmed today because AT&T has refused fully to heed the PDA’s core command [that discrimination based on pregnancy must end].

The decision ends any chance to remedy just a small part of the equation that leaves older women much poorer than older men in the United States. As the  Pension Rights Center’s Women’s Pension Project points out:

Because they generally live longer, earn less, and spend less time in the workforce than men, women are particularly vulnerable to unfair pension policies. Without income from pensions to supplement Social Security, women are much more likely than men to retire into poverty. According to the Congressional Research Service, older women living alone are among the poorest demographic groups in the nation.

The fact that women earn less than men (still 78 cents on the dollar) is one reason why their pensions, 401(k)s, and Social Security benefits are lower; another is the fact that they tend to work fewer years total, which results in large part from taking maternity leave and other kinds of family leave. All this adds up to a big difference in later years: According to the Women’s Pension Project, in 2007, the median annual income for among those 65 and older was $13, 877 for women, and $24,142 for men. Some 12 percent of women age 65 and over lived in poverty, compared with 6.6 percent of men. As the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER) points out, that figure rises to almost 20 percent for older single women, and 40 percent for older single African American and Latino women. And all of these numbers pre-date the financial meltdown.