Learning the hard way
Our continent is not a monolith, but one thing our cultures have in common is their reverence for elders. That reverence is expressed in different ways, but it is always there. The Yoruba for instance will prostrate at the feet of their elders to show respect. I witnessed people prostrating for an older person for the first time when I visited an aunt in Lagos as a child. I had never seen that level of deference before. I was used to bowing, kneeling, bending down, and accepting things with only your right hand. I learned about the right hand custom the hard way: I had another aunt who told me that it was disrespectful for a child to accept something from an elder with your left hand, but I rarely paid attention to such things until the day she beat me mercilessly for accepting something with my left hand. She took it as a sign of disrespect. Of course, I wasn’t being disrespectful to her. She was standing to my left; hence I used my left hand. Such was the way of some of our elders. We were supposed to be deferential to them no matter what, even after they beat you for something as innocuous as using your left hand.
I respect elders that are worthy of it. I’m not saying we should be disrespectful towards our elders. I just think reverence must be earned. Merely being around for a long time should not suffice. We should seek guidance and counsel from elders who have a track record of kindness, compassion and most of all, wisdom. From the various African traditions I have witnessed, it’s customary to view an old person as wise. I question that tradition not to be controversial or disrespectful, but because it isn’t realistic across the board. I have seen far too many mean-spirited and ignorant elders to know that some of them aren’t worthy of reverence. The old person in your village just might be a mumu who outlived everyone, and that’s it. We’re always deferential and respectful towards elders, but no one talks about the fact that an old person just might be a big dunce or a detestable person. I know an elder who tells women that their wombs are cursed because they had too many daughters and not enough sons. What is that other than ignorance, misogyny and cruelty? Despite this, people look at that cantankerous old man like he’s a wise sage. He’s really an old fool.
Reverence for elders is only ideal if your elders are kind, wise, and look out for your best interests. Along the way of the perpetual deferring state Africans are supposed to be in with their elders, guidelines were never given for those with elders who are ignorant, cruel, and abusive. It is assumed that being an elder equates to positivity and knowledge. What if your elders are negative and ignorant? Should we defer to them simply because the odometer of their life has a higher mileage? Look at President Museveni for instance. He’s almost 70, and he would be considered an elder. He’s busy signing anti-gay laws and banning miniskirts. It’s irrelevant if he genuinely believes those are good actions to take, or if he’s doing it for political expediency. Is he someone we should revere and defer to because he’s old? If we can recognise how foolish it would be to defer to incompetent leaders, why don’t we apply that logic to the elders in our communities? Many elders have shown themselves to be complete buffoons.
Lest we forget, some of our elders are the ones responsible for maintaining abhorrent practices like female genital mutilation. My father’s village in Rivers State is near Akwa Ibom state. Some elders in neighbouring Awka Ibom communities and further east into Cross River state think twins are manifestations of evil. People in those regions act like this mind-set with their elders disappeared after the arrival of Mary Slessor, but that simply isn’t true. Thankfully, the old practice of killing twins in that region is no more, but if a set of twins is a boy and a girl, elders will prefer the boy. If you can give me an actual reason why we should be deferential to elders like this, then I’m all ears.
Let me reiterate that I’m not saying we should be disrespectful towards our elders. However, when we witness them displaying ignorance or cruelty, we shouldn’t feel obligated to respect, revere or defer to them simply for being old. We have been deferential to mean-spirited people and fools for far too long. We should only defer to elders who are wise and can impart knowledge.
Remember Occupy Nigeria?
We are too deferential to elders and authority figures alike, even when it’s quite clear that the people we are deferring to don’t have our best interests at heart. It’s why many of our political leaders can remain in office for so long. The populace won’t revolt despite being treated poorly. We will complain, but we won’t revolt. Remember Occupy Nigeria? I don’t blame you for forgetting about it, most people have. In Ukraine, people stormed and took over the home of their President in protest. No one will storm Mugabe’s home in Zimbabwe anytime soon. He’s living lavishly. I can only dream of the day when all Africans will react to elder political despots with the righteous indignation some of them have towards LGBTQ individuals. That remains a dream deferred, as many Africans are quite busy right now looking for gays to persecute.
Many of us believe that when an elder dies, it’s like a library went up in flames. Well, some of our elders were vacant lots, not libraries. That’s the uncomfortable truth.