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In many African countries, young people are raised to have respect for their elders. However, the kind of respect that is expected borders on complete deference, creating a situation where, by default, older people are almost always assumed to be right on all issues, while younger people are expected to acquiesce their views, choices and decision in favor of the more ‘mature’ ones of the old.
Respecting older people is good. In fact, it is a testament of good morals and upbringing to be respectful of people who are older than you. Extending a greeting first, helping an older person with their load, getting up to let a them sit in a bus, holding the door open for them, being courteous etc. are ways to show respect to people who are older than you.
That being said, people should respect each other, their rights, choices, views, perspectives etc. because it is the right thing to do… regardless of a person’s age.
One would think this is such a simple thing to expect. But, it is not. This request for mutual respect causes such a huge friction in many of our African communities. There is this general belief that old age confers a wisdom and maturity to people that must not be questioned or tampered with; and so, must be respected completely. In fact, a popular adage punctuates this view: ‘What an old person sees while sitting down, a young person would have to climb a tree to see it’.
As a result of this belief, many young people are expected to be silent before their elders, accepting whatever edict they dish out…unquestioned. And if they must speak, they must only echo the thoughts of their elders while bending over backwards in a servile manner showing they are grateful to be able to talk before their elders.
Young people are not expected to have their own opinions or deign to disagree with the wisdom and maturity of the old. Where they do, they are considered poorly raised, rude, uncouth and whatever other adjective they can come with.
This would not be a problem if it wasn’t creating stunted communities that are unable to fully come into the 21st Century and its opportunities therein.
In the social sphere, people are taking academic courses they don’t want to because their parents insist that is what they should do. This means they go into the labor force lacking the required passion that could cause them to create solutions for communal, State or national problems. Many people still do not have autonomy to choose if (or when) they get married, have children, or generally live their lives because the old in the lives – their parents, religious and traditional leaders or plain old communal busybodies – meddle in the choices they need to make for themselves. So, these young people accept the edicts they are given and live a miserable life with the knowledge that they themselves would get old and can then perpetuate the cycle of control.
But it gets worse.
Nowhere is the God complex associated with old age more prominent than in governance and leadership. Take for example what is happening across many countries and cities in Africa. In spite of all the conversations that promote the inclusion of young people in government, policy formulation, implementation and monitoring towards demographic dividends, many governments are persistently unwilling to make room for that inclusion. The reason many of these African leaders are unwilling to facilitate this inclusion is because in their view, youth is without experience and the maturity conferred on one by old age is the only ingredient needed to lead people.
Because it is an open secret that they do not have any other ingredient to develop their countries in their bag.
In Nigeria, until May 31, 2018, most people could not run for the highest office – the Presidency – unless they were at least 40 years old. And one had to be at least 30 years old to vie for elective positions in the House of Assembly. The reality however was that, most people who vied for these positions were well into their 50s (at least). When young people wanted to express their constitutional rights to run for elective offices, they were always reminded of their age and muscled out. The Age Reduction Act – popularly known as the Not Too Young to Run Act – has changed this, but it is still a long (long) road to seeing more young people who present themselves on the ballot win the votes of people.
While it is clear that youth is not a determining factor for innovation or the much-needed development of any African country, it is definitely is a step in the right direction. Most African countries have a young population, so it shouldn’t be weird that young people are the drivers of change; or at least, part of the system that drives change. They should contribute to the policies that determine the fates of their lives. They should choose the education and career paths that best suits their skills and desires so they are actively contributing to the growth and development of themselves, their communities, states, regions and nations as a whole. And by God, they should be allowed to choose their spouses – or even if they want to get married at all – so that their mental health is catered to.
Old age is great. Everyone aspires to get to a ripe old age before they die. But the goal of old age should be to rest after giving all of one’s energy while young. It shouldn’t be a time to hustle for elective positions where reduced strength and maybe failing health may affect productivity towards the achievement of goals. It shouldn’t be a time to control people and be demi-gods in the lives of younger people.
There will always be a place in society for the wisdom of the old. However, this place should be a product of mutual respect and not forced interactions based on how long a person has lived. Again, respect should be given because it is the right thing to do…regardless of the age of the person.