Grandma Ngozi

So the best of Swiss journalism wrote- “This grandmother will become the boss of the WTO” and all hell broke loose. The real problem here is that there’s a culture that considers being a matriarch an insult. As if a grandmother is devoid of the kind of intelligence necessary to understand global economics and international affairs.

I’ve got a story for you. One day during my first year at grad school in NY, students were presenting their drama therapy projects to the class. We were to critique one student’s work by writing what we thought on a piece of paper and passing it on to the professor who would read them out so no one knew who said what. Mine was never read out. You’ll find out why shortly.

So this student showed us a tape she recorded of her elderly clients at an assisted living home. She was taking them through a warm-up exercise. It’s the way she talked to them that disturbed me. Slooowly, stupidly, delicately. The class went awwwe! applause! applause! Then there was me. Freshly African. Don’t know how to pretend… yet. Plastic-smile lessons would come later. Right now I was learning the applause-on-demand lesson.

To me, these were elders, and they were not in a mental institution. So I wrote on my piece of paper: “They are being treated like children”, folded it up and gave it to the prof. She never read mine to the class. She was a silver-haired elderly professor, one of the best I ever had. I only remember she called me to her office later and offered me a scholarship, which I didn’t qualify for on account of non-citizens not eligible.

See I was used to grandmothers and grandfathers being consulted over serious matters, being placed at the front of gatherings so that words they spoke were passed on like oracle, and when they interacted with kids, they told them wise things. They were the community’s library, archives and ad hoc commissions. I did my college literature research through the elders in my village.

Then I come to the US and I see a group of elders being talked to like a classroom of kindergarteners. I was in the Upside-Down. I put that in my culture-shock pipe and smoked it slowly. Many years later, I’m used to it now. They even do it in ads for assisted living homes so often I never question any more why they don’t show the elderly doing more intelligent activity.

Don’t get me wrong. Games are very important, as is physical exercise, arts, craftwork… But I’m about to go into one of those homes myself in a couple of decades or less, and I want a fun program that will allow me to share some secrets about human beings and a dollop of wisdom with younger people. Western culture, and that includes the Swiss, tends to see aging as a return to nursery school.

So you see where the Swiss newspaper is coming from with this notion that being a grandmother heading a powerful international body is some kind of insult to society’s intelligence. As if Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the gray-haired matriarch, can only be seen through the lens of a Eurocentric assisted living facility.

Imagine a headline about Christina Lagarde- “This grandmother is the boss of the IMF”. It should be applause-worthy, but in western culture, it’s an insult. The apology to Dr. Ngozi should be because the Swiss journalists realize that being called grandmother is not the insult they thought it was in the first place.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *