Gracious golden girls
Did you know that Algeria has a life expectancy that is 30 years longer than the one back home in Zimbabwe? That means people here have a chance of seeing eight more World Cups than the average Zimbabwean.
It also means the country is not short of old people. They are all over the place, as though a casting call for Golden Girls was under way. They sit on pavements, staring into the distance, reminiscing about times gone by or cooking up wise sayings to pass on to their grandchildren by the fireside in the morning, just as my grandmother used to do when I was young.
The grandmothers rule here, walking down streets slowly, covered in their white shawls, as if digesting the passage of time itself.
They are not perturbed by the rush of pedestrians or the roar of traffic: I have seen old women stop speeding cars with merely an upheld hand and the belief in their eyes that the road was built simply for their pleasure.
But above all, they rule in the buses. They get on to a bus and look for the youngest person on it and march up to you and demand that you stand up. You lose your rights to your seat there and then. They then sit and admonish youngsters for talking too loudly or the bus driver for driving too fast.
I remember a time back home in Zimbabwe when youth used to stand up as a matter of course for elders in buses and give way to them in queues. But by the time I had grown up, the practice had almost disappeared.
When I arrived in Algeria, though, I found the tradition alive and well. In every bus you board men stand up for women, children stand up for men and grandmothers give you the eye until you suddenly feel the seat is no longer yours and graciously give in.
It is a custom I like. There’s an unspoken bond among the commuters in the bus, some of them covered in headscarves, their eyes speaking of the rush they are in to get to town and back before afternoon prayers start. I sometimes catch their eyes and for a moment we are connected over the chasms of our different worlds—but only for a moment.
I usually just stare out the window at the passing landscape, burning under the summer Mediterranean heat, mosque towers dotting the cityscape, until the conductor comes and pokes my shoulder—it is time to pay.
But one day it wasn’t the conductor who brought me out of my reverie. It was a little old lady who had come to stand in the aisle beside me. Inwardly I groaned; it was a hot day and the charitable side of my nature was waging a tough battle to get me to stand up.
I looked at her, wondering what would bring her so far down the aisle. She was covered in a white fabric that she had wrapped around her head as well. She held it just beneath her chin with her tattooed hands and when she smiled I could see a gold tooth give a shine to her laugh. And she was old. Her skin was wrinkled and her eyes were cloudy so I offered her a seat.
That should have been that, but she looked at me and said the most remarkable thing: ‘No.”
For a moment I looked at her stupidly before I half made to stand up for her and she firmly pushed me back down.
She smiled at me and said something in Arabic, which the man next to me helpfully translated into French after noting the incomprehension on my face. ‘She says thank you very much but she would much rather stand.”
And for the rest of the bus ride I studied her closely. I watched as she laughed with other passengers, her voice rising slightly as she made a point and cracked a joke. She would ask a question and listen attentively as someone gave an answer, her face lighting up as she caught something and commented on it.
That day I met a spirited old woman who truly was a golden girl. She showed me her theory about old age: that it is a time of laughter and smiles just as much as any other part of life and she earned more respect from me than all the others who had demanded it.
If anyone asks me what I want to be like when I grow up, my answer will be immediate: just?like her.
Bongani Ncube is a Zimbabwean studying computer science in Algiers