OPINION: In Touch: Twilight citizens

August 20, 2012

L-R: Ekiti State Governor, Dr. Kayode Fayemi and Commissioner for Labour , Productivity and Human Capital Development, Mr. Wole Adewunmi, presenting a cheque to one of the beneficiaries, Pa Ojumu Ilesanmi, during the flag-off of the second bactch of the State’s Social Security Scheme for Elderly Citizens in Omuo.

DO not cast me away when I am old,” Ps. 71:9

The old are an endangered species in our community, and this is a paradox. The aged cannot be endangered when they are close to their graves. But that is the crux.

The aged did not always live in danger of extinction. Rather they went away in blissful peace. They passed away in contrast to the poet Dylan Thomas who urged his loved one not to “go gentle into that good night.” Rather the poet asked the loved one to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Today, the aged die without éclat, without hurrah. Their songs go dark even before their lights peter out. That is because the society does not care for the aged again. We do not care for the aged because the village has lost its pristine peace and harmony, its energy of togetherness.

The birth of the city, the struggle for the elusive filthy lucre, the allure of what Henry James called the “big, bright Babylon,” has taken away the innocence of the village.

So the old dies hardly with family. When they die, the relations and friends visit to say the final goodbye in somewhat material extravagance that the dead did not get in their twilight years. The ornate casket and lavish party mock the years of penury when they did not get good nourishment or required medication or the psychological succour of family attention.

When I was in the United States, I often told the story to Americans of the African sense of community, and how we were our neighbour’s keepers. One day, I gave a talk to a senior home, where many citizens in their hoary years lived. Theirs was a journey of the jejune, a life of loneliness, many never visited by children or relatives, but cared for by their retirement money and the monthly pay cheque from the government called social security.

They were amazed by my tale of America as a lost civilisation, a sense of a nation at home with money more than family. But when I returned home, the country I left was a shadow of its communal past. Villages now house lonely older citizens with fewer people to care for them. Somehow, I saw that the African society, like its Western counterpart, was lost in the cash nexus, in the rigmarole of the search for fulfillment in money and material splendour. I knew the chilling fact that we cannot have the village back. Time is moving to the desolate place, and our sense of community is going behind us.

We have not come to terms with how to handle this properly. One governor with a clear crack at it is Dr. Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State. Every month all senior citizens get N5,000. But when the news came to the fore, it was not generally appreciated by the larger Nigerian community.

I had a greater appreciation of it when I visited Ekiti a couple of weeks back at one of Fayemi’s signature projects, The Ikogosi Resort. As the governor walked down a slope after inspecting a set of chalets, a group of elegantly dressed old women loomed ahead. They were dancing and singing in Yoruba. They encircled him in a whirligig of joy. They serenaded the governor for not abandoning them in their old age. It was mini-party from their point of view, a party of gratitude.

Those who live in the inflation-laden cities of Lagos and Abuja may make light of the sum. But to the villagers, it is a monthly fortune. It can buy quite some necessities and give them a sense of anticipation every month. Later that evening, at a phone-in programme, some senior citizens called in to complain that the state’s version of social security had not reached some of them. The governor promised to look into it.

These are the fathers and mothers of the nation. They toiled once, had the sap of youth, and were the source of all productivity. Now that they have lost most of that vitality, how do we say thank you? This contrasts what happened a few years ago in Jigawa State when the governor shed millions to the talakawa. That celebrated indolence, young people were paid not to produce. In Ekiti State, they had attained their geriatric days. The Chinese proverb says, “When I was young I never had the sense but when I was old I never had the strength.”

The talakawa young had the strength, the twilight citizens of Ekiti had little. We have had different ways of attacking this problem with the provision of free health to some of the weaker members of our society. In Lagos and southwest states, the elderly get free health, in Delta State the children under five years old and pregnant women get free health services. Ditto to Rivers State.

Fayemi’s answers to not only the need to approach unpredictable needs of the individuals but the freedom to decide what to do with their money. In the United States today, a huge debate is raging on whether to maintain the social security system as well as Medicaid which cares for the weak and poor. It is a big debate that increasingly polarises the society.

In 1996, Hilary Clinton wrote a book, It Takes a Village, in which she urged Americans to borrow a leaf from Africans in the way we raised our kids. She won a Grammy for her audio version of the book, even though politicians like Bob Dole brought a partisan bad blood to it.

But while Americans were contemplating our sense of community, we are busy aping them. If that is inevitable as modernity is a train no one can reverse, we must adapt the way Fayemi has done. Some of them have no pensions, and this is a surefire way to squeeze water out of nothing. Other governors will do well to emulate him. Social security cheques in the U.S. are not fat, but something to keep the old citizens from month to month. That is what Fayemi has done.

By Sam Omatseye

This article was first published in The Nation on 20 August, 2012.

Last modified: August 20, 2012

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