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Sankofa : Planning for the Golden Years ……….From the archives.

Source : Kwaku Duah

Remember your Creator in your youthful days….. These are the opening words of wise counsel and pious instruction offered in Ecclesiastes 12. If one reads the whole chapter carefully, it provides sober reflection for the meaning of things and indeed life and it therefore makes sense to apply the advice in planning for one’s old age. We give wider meaning to the advice conveyed than we realise. The book of Ecclesiastes is therefore an unseen instructor to the African in the diaspora.

You could be from Togo , Ghana , Nigeria , Cameroun or the legendary Timbuktu but one thing binds us all: Africa . Many of us leave Africa and its sunny and warm climate, where the night is as long as the day but familiar faces and familiar surroundings conceal a darkness of fear and uncertainty. We leave behind uncertainties such as heavy rains, floods, dry harmattan months, the plenty of June, July and August, and the meagre rations of November, December and January. The contrived gluttony of Christmas is only a confidence trick that papers over the cracks of the dry earth in which tubers of yam, cassava and cocoyam struggle for water.

Every African is born a twin, themselves and uncertainty, however pleasant, which we sometimes rush to swap for the unpleasant certainties of cold, wet, dark winter months, alienation, and insecurities and a new kind of fear, even though water and energy supplies are guaranteed all year round. And although we find ourselves in the midst of bountiful supplies of foods of all assortments, we hunger and thirst.

Yet these unpleasant certainties do not deter us and future generations from dreaming of escaping the pleasant uncertainties of our homeland. Those of us in Europe and North America especially, convince ourselves that only the certainties are guaranteed and worth pursuing; the unpleasantness part of the equation will not last long or the guaranteed certainties will consign all the unpleasantness to blissful oblivion.

This is where the words of Ecclesiastes kick into action to remind us not only of our Creator but of our old age and mortality. We scrimp and save to build modest three bedroom houses in Africa, and in some cases mansions that take years to complete, where we hope, that one day we will retire and eventually die in peace in the warm embrace of Africa’s soil. In a way these edifices represent our testament and living mausoleums where our wakes will be kept and our great deeds remembered in fine, sung obsequies. We do this with one firm conviction: that an alloy will be made from the good parts of the new pleasantness of home and the old certainties of the diaspora. We seek to create through these edifices only pleasant certainties for our old age but in the process, we fail to appreciate one thing: the uncertainty that accompanies old age. We forget that the uncertainties that we temporarily leave behind actually do not go away. They stay firmly behind awaiting our blissful return. Indeed, they become more intractable, and although we may have mansions and fistfuls of dollars, the old uncertainties, however pleasant, cannot be removed by individual or private wealth alone. Our health now becomes the new wealth, real wealth.

When Americans retire to the sunnier climes of Florida, they do so with one certainty, which is the same advanced healthcare system that they are used to in New York or Oregon that they leave behind. Northern European pensioners who retire to Spain or Portugal face similar certainties. The African in the diaspora on the other hand faces more uncertainties in their old age back home. As the old African saying goes: nowhere cool! Kumba is hot, Abidjan is hot. Everywhere hot, hot, hot! It is hotter in old age because the opportunities are fewer or in many cases have come to an end. In our old age, some of us may become immobile and therefore reliant on physical assistance; some of us may be confused and forgetful whilst some of us may become incontinent. Our hearing and eyesight may not what they once were. Sadly, these are conditions which Africa , the land we call home is not ready to encounter because no one is planning or developing policies to deal with them.

Old age can be very lonely but it is a condition that cannot be cured in a conventional hospital or in one’s home without good company. It is also a condition that cannot be postponed. Money can buy you company but what kind of company?
I have heard many a diaspora African say with firm and youthful certitude that they would not spend their old age in a care home. What is conveniently ignored in this proclamation of youthful brashness is that no one goes into a care home by choice, and sometimes the decision to be placed in a care home is not one’s to make. Those who make such a boastful promise or indeed declaration have only one certainty in mind: that mansion and dollar reserve to match. This is a false certainty. Further inquiry tends to reveal that what underlies this certainty is nostalgia and the conviction that certain old certainties still exist back home.

Culturally, Africa is changing and changing fast. Our life in the diaspora is full of nostalgia which goes largely into the planning for our old age which we envisaging spending back home sitting in a pleasant garden swatting the stubborn African fly and mosquito. We see ourselves playing proud grandparents, entertaining and being entertained by our grandchildren, grilling suya and roasting corn at the closing eyes of Africa’s beautiful sunset or under the seductive starry skies of Africa ’s sultry moonlit nights.

And here is the paradox! The world has become a small place, yet we see less of each other. Distances have reduced, yet we have become more and more isolated from one another. This will be the future that awaits us when we retire back home. There will be less frequent generational interactions at weekends; all we will have for company will be the memory of times enjoyed with our own grandparents when we were growing up back home in Africa . We will therefore not have the opportunity and joy of educating and speaking our own language with our grandchildren.

There is nothing sadder than a lonely old man or woman with no one to visit and to talk to. Our offspring could not be accused of neglect. Distance makes it impossible for them to visit us every weekend as they, their children, our nieces, nephews and their children will all be in foreign lands, and the only relatives, who may not even know us and who live in towns and villages far from our mansions in the big city may also be busy eking out a meagre living or planning to join the African diaspora.

So who will speak for us when we are old and frail and our voices are weak? Currently, we are all so busy chasing that dream home, that dream lifestyle after retirement that we do not envisage anything going wrong. Certainly it must occur to us that our physical capabilities will dwindle and in some cases, our mental faculties too? It is therefore prudent that whilst we are young and putting up brick and mortar structures, we also seek to influence the policy process that would help to draw up a framework for care for the elderly in Cameroun or in Ghana or in Gambia. We need advocates for the elderly. Let us not leave it till we are too old to raise our voices. Viva!

Regards

Kwaku Duah