Letter from Africa: Why age is just a number in Ghana

By Lorlornyofm May 14, 2017 14:02

Letter from Africa: Why age is just a number in Ghana

In our series of letters from African journalists, veteran Ghanaian journalist Elizabeth Ohene reflects on why in Ghana a person’s age is not etched in stone.

Ghanaians do not particularly love numbers. We tend to be quite lax, especially with figures that have to do with age.

Someone’s date of birth or age is not considered important and very rarely features in any story about that person.

I know that in many parts of the world, once you are born and you acquire a date of birth, it stays with you. It is unchangeable and you die with it.

In Ghana, it is common to see notices in newspapers announcing a change in someone’s date of birth. This often happens when a working person’s date of retirement is approaching.

People then swear an affidavit to change their profiles from the 59-year-olds they are known to be, to the 55-year-olds that they want to be so they can carry on receiving a salary for a few extra years.

According to the constitution, the retirement age for most public officers is 60.

Seven years younger

Some people have been known to swear affidavits to change their date of birth that would put them in Primary Class One before they were born.

The most dramatic Notice of Change of Date of Birth I have seen was one that reduced an official’s age by seven years.

An official of the Electoral Commission (EC) helps a voter to do biometric verification before casting his vote for the presidential election at Bole district in northern Ghana, on December 7, 2016.

Image copyright AFP: Image caption Incorrect birth records could undermine elections

I am writing about this subject because of a recent news item that I thought went way beyond the extraordinary, even for Ghana.

The news report said that about 800 teachers had applied to the Ghana Education Service to have their ages changed.

Some wanted their dates of birth changed to make them younger and a few wanted their dates changed to make them older than what was on their documentation.

The news story was greeted with a lot of outrage and I said to myself: This must mean Ghana is finally joining the rest of the world in paying respect to dates of birth.

“How can people want their dates of birth to be changed?” was the incredulous reaction to the story I heard from many young people.

But then the head of one of the teaching unions came out to make a spirited defence of his members.

The teachers wanted their dates of birth changed only because, according to him, mistakes had been made at the time of their employment by the payroll departments in entering the dates.

Why make a fuss about three years?

This phenomenon has been possible because very few births are recorded.

Once upon a time it was illiterate parents that did not bother to get the births of their children recorded and with time the date got lost in the mists of memory.

A birth certificate is supposed to be provided before a child can be enrolled in school but somehow or other, many people are able to get their children into school without birth certificates.

Elizabeth Ohene:

Elizabeth Ohene

Elizabeth Ohene

This total disregard for the sanctity of dates of birth manifests in other ways that sometimes undermines all official records in Ghana.

When in later life you require a birth certificate, you would go before a commissioner of oaths and offer a date that would be said to be based on the best “guessestimate” given you by your parents or family member.

In much later life, when you are approaching the compulsory retirement age of 60 and you desperately want to continue to work a few more years because you can’t survive on your pension, you go back to the commissioner of oaths and swear that you have now discovered compelling evidence that the original date of your certificate was wrong.

For example, you were told that you were born in the year the chief of the village was enstooled (inaugurated) and you have discovered he was enstooled in 1968 and not 1965.

There probably does not exist any official record of the date of the enstoolment of this chief anyway, so why make a fuss about a difference of three years?

Ghana school class

Some school children might have voter cards

This total disregard for the sanctity of dates of birth manifests in other ways that sometimes undermines all official records in Ghana.

I have seen school children who cannot be more than 14 years old who have voters registration cards. The law says you have to be 18 to register to vote.

The consequences might follow you through life unless you are prepared to go on paying visits to the commissioner of oaths to acquire new dates of birth.

Police recruitment advertisements have a cut-off date of 25 years.

You are really 21 but have a voters’ registration card that says you are 26 because you passed yourself off as 18 when you were 14.

Sometimes it has been football players who try to shave off a number of years from their ages so they can participate in age-restricted competitions.

Nana Akufo-Addo, the new president of Ghana,

Photo: President Nana Akufo-Addo, 73, wants citizens to have ID cards with unchangeable biometric data

These days technology is being deployed to ensure the integrity of such competitions, making it difficult for 20-somethings to participate in under-17 competitions.

A lot of attempts have been made to enforce the registration of births and deaths, and so far all these attempts have failed spectacularly.

There is already in existence a regulation issued by the head of the civil service some years ago which says public officials are not allowed to change their dates of birth during their time in government employment.

In other words, you are stuck with whatever date of birth you enter the service with, and you cannot get younger or older by swearing an affidavit.

It was always going to be difficult to enforce this directive because there are many people here who believe their ages are “confidential” and should not be advertised.

You could ask someone how old they were and get a reply: Is it my official or real age that you want?

One of the firm promises made by the new government is that within its first year in office, a national identification system will be in place.

In other words, all Ghanaians will have identification cards with their unchangeable biometric data and none of us will be able to swear an affidavit to acquire a new date of birth.

Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland plays a forehand in his semifinal match against Roger Federer of Switzerland on day 11 of the 2017 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 26, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.

Switzerland’s tennis star Stan Wawrinka has been described as “a mere 31”

We are all holding our breath.

And whilst I await this dramatic change, I have been wondering if there are any advantages in the current situation where a person’s age is a changeable and confidential figure?

My mind went to a sentence I read in an online article in a British newspaper earlier this year.

Those who follow tennis would recognise that this was part of a report during the Australian Open:

“A few hours after Serena Williams, 35, joined her 36-year-old sister, Venus, in the women’s final by trouncing the 34-year-old Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, Federer, 35, somehow conjured some more retro magic to beat Stan Wawrinka, a mere 31, for the 19th time in 22 matches,” the article in The Guardian said.

I fear that faced with the possibility of such prose in our newspapers, many people in Ghana are going to opt to keep dates of birth a changeable and private event.

By Lorlornyofm May 14, 2017 14:02
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