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When were you born and what is your age?

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PHOTO: un.org

It is the beginning of a new year, the year 2018. We are thankful that we are alive. There were too many sudden deaths in 2017; both old and young people clutched their chests suddenly and went out permanently. Was it the general stress that caused this? We do not know what 2018 carries inside its belly. But we hope and believe that we will conquer the New Year! While some old bad habits have been supposedly discarded in the now-dead 2017, most of us have carried them into the New Year. This is in spite of December 31st and January 1st vows, promises, protestations, renewals and confessions. I suppose also that most of us are still in the holiday mood and would not like to read any heavy stuff. So why not examine and cross examine our attitude to age and the fallouts there from!

The title of this essay is derived from two different answers that often emerge as a way of showing how sensitive we could be to the question of age of our age. There is the real age and the official age for some Nigerians in the public space. I refer to both men and women. As for the special specie called women we are told that it is not polite to ask a woman her age. And so when they send out invitation, they simply say ‘Mosun is Plus One.’ Her real age must be kept secret from friends, from her co-workers, from the public.

It also happens in some marriages. The women under-declares her age to her would-be husband or both husband and wife under-declare the woman’s age to the man’s family. For, in our culture a husband must ALWAYS be older than his wife. The thinking is: When there are millions of younger girls in the public space why should a man marry an older woman? Besides the woman may not show ‘enough’ respect to her hubby! They forget that some men are naturally attracted to older women, an extension of the mother-image. Another dimension to this young-man-marries-older-woman story that has become notorious is when 25 year African boys ‘fall in love’ with American or British 60year old women. Their families back here in Africa look the other way. The ‘love’ is a passport to the Green card of the other world!

It is in the area of employment that men usually amend, alter, re-create, and manipulate their birth date. This is very common in the public and civil services, both Federal and State. It is also found in the tertiary education system and in the military. A man enters the civil service after working elsewhere. At some point he realises that he may not get to a particular level before the statutory age of retirement. He may also realize that he has not built a house or has not finished training his kids. He then goes to the Records Department to alter his original documents. In some cases they simply fill in a new birth date in the APER forms. And because nobody really goes back to check past records the new birth date becomes the official one.

I once chaired an interview panel to recruit Chief Administrative Officer for an institution. One of the interviewees presented a Curriculum Vitae which showed that he left secondary school at the age of nine years! He had so much adjusted his CV that he forgot that he was three years old when he left primary school. He could not remember the name of the primary school which he attended or the years he spent there! One of the panelists, an octogenarian, was not amused. He clearly gave us the dates when he entered and left primary school, some sixty odd years before!

I once had an official driver who begged me to deploy him to desk office work. Of course I wanted to know why. He said although his official age was 43 years, he was already 63 years old and the stress of the job was affecting his health badly. Under normal conditions he ought to have retired. There have been cases of officials who officially died at 50. During the burial the family back at home innocently point out to the organisation that there was an error in the dead man’s obituary notice. ‘He was six years my senior and I am now sixty,’ a brother said openly!

Some parents get their kids into this complexity very early in life. A child is not yet 16 and so cannot be admitted into university. Off they go to the court or a Notary Public to swear in the name of the Law that the kid is indeed 17 and that at time of his birth no record was kept! The era when parents did not keep birth records is over. But not for some parents who want to push their wards ahead of their peers. Indeed there are some highly placed Nigerians currently in the public space who have announced different ages in the last ten years. What else do we say when a leader is congratulated on his 75th birthday five years ago only to declare that he is currently 71 years old?

In the developed parts of the world people who have had a career with a structured organization look forward to retirement. Pension is guaranteed. With some luck (no debilitating health challenge) they could even take up another employment till they get to 70years. But in our environment where nothing is certain the desire to cling on to work is very high, though unhealthy. Most of such persons die shortly after retirement.

At the bottom of all this is failure of individuals to obey and the State to enforce the regulation on recording births and deaths. Local governments are duty-bound to record these. However individuals should respect the convention. All over the world once there is no enforcement of the law people tend to act illegally. The years of ignorance are over. Keeping proper records helps the nation to collect data.

We do not need any magician to understand why workers tend to lie about their age or when they were born. The feeling of uncertainty seems to drive this culture or practice of altering or telling lies about one’s age. I shudder about the way we treat pensioners. We seem to forget that we would also retire some day. When we have got the labour relations right no one would need to falsify their age in order to continue working. Also, when we come to realise that age is just a number and that a woman’s age does not have to be hidden things could change. At that time there would be no contradiction, or one would not need to think twice before answering the simple question: how old are you or when were you?


In this article:
Hope Eghagha

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