By Muyiwa Adetiba
A prominent Minister in the last government once told me a story of how as a young boy, he was hurrying out on an errand along the dusty streets of his village in Otukpa, Benue State when he went past a heavily pregnant woman labouring to pound yam. Because of the urgency of his assignment, he averted his eyes and made to hurry past. But something pulled him back. He took the pestle from the grateful woman and finished the task for her. The woman never stopped praying as he pounded away and intensified her prayers when he refused to eat. She found out where he lived—not that difficult in the village in those days—and came to thank him. She explained that she woke up wanting to eat pounded yam badly—you know how pregnancy affects the appetite of some women —even when she doubted if she had the strength for the task. To further show her gratitude, she named the child after him. This act should resonate well with people in their 60s and 70s who grew up in the rural parts of Nigeria. Doing chores for the elderly and the infirm was one of the values ingrained in us. It was unthinkable to walk past an elderly person carrying a load especially if you were heading in the same direction. Grinding pepper, fetching water and pounding yam all went with the territory.
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Some of these values also seemed ingrained in a few who grew up in the cities. About two decades ago, a ‘big boy’ who later became a South-West governor, was opening his magnificent office complex in Maryland. I was there along with many whose paths had crossed his. After the crowd had thinned out, some of his friends gathered at the parking lot to share drinks and banters. One of them was the founder and CEO of a successful second generation bank. A retired Judge decided to join this ‘group of boys.’ Before a seat could be gotten for him, the banker got up and offered his seat. The retired Judge declined. The banker insisted. This went on for a full minute before the Judge gratefully accepted. This bank CEO was left standing for a while before a seat was procured for him. I still remember this show of humility and display of a traditional African value anytime I see this banker who is himself now long retired.About this time, Punch Newspapers had an event to which I was invited. When a senior colleague got up to go, I offered to carry his bag of souvenirs to his car. He refused. I insisted. He gave in. Before we could leave the hall however, a junior colleague who had become a magazine publisher in his own right got up and took the bag from me. The parents of the three of us wherever they might be, must have felt good at the way we projected our upbringing that afternoon as we walked towards the parking lot.
I must say that this deference to elders though common to us is not limited to our shores any more. About two months ago, my wife and I found ourselves in a crowded train in London. We perched precariously each with one hand holding a carrier bag and the other holding on to the railing as the train lunged on. Then one white chap seeing our discomfiture, tapped my wife and offered his seat for her. After a little hesitation, the chap by him also offered his seat for me. I felt grateful and said a quiet prayer for them. According elders little privileges is a custom that is as old as time in Africa. It is something we can say we have now taught the world as it seems to be gaining traction everywhere. Now elders are first attended to in queues and during appointments in most parts of the world.
But it now seems that the continent that taught the world to defer to elders is back sliding on some core African values. We hardly genuflect anymore. We don’t feel any obligation to do chores for elders. We shout them down in public and private places. We defer more to wealth and position than to grey hairs. I do not know why that young man who requested an 84 year old Professor Wole Soyinka to get up in the plane because WS had usurped his seat did so. I do not know why he refused to accord the old man the indulgence that is the privilege of age. I read somewhere that it was on account of the young man’s medical condition. Maybe. Those who have a fear of heights would probably not want to seat near the window. And those who are averse to the press of people might not want the aisle. But the debates on the social media are on everything but medical. Some talked about rights. Some talked about paying extra for that right. Some talked about usurpation. Many didn’t express their views in any language that is decent. If the kind of rage, of hatred, of class consciousness, of expletives that one regularly finds in the social media represents the youths of today, then we are in a very serious trouble as a nation. To denigrate the person of our own WS with all he has achieved because he sat on a young man’s seat in a plane is worrisome indeed. Despite my many travels, I know I have mistaken a window seat for an aisle seat several times. I know I have swapped seats with total strangers on account of that or any reason. I also know some people insist on having their seats for whatever reasons while some voluntarily give up their seats so that couples can seat near each other. It really should be no big deal. Your reaction is usually as a result of your upbringing, your disposition and what you have garnered in your journey of life. I know I would not ask a Wole Soyinka, a Christopher Kolade, a John Pepper Clark, a Sam Amuka or anybody in their mid-80s and above to get up under any circumstance because they are occupying my seat. I would instead use that opportunity to introduce myself, and after insisting that they remained on the seat, use the goodwill to start a conversation.
Like the Minister found out, you never lose when you help an older person or defer to an elder. Their heart is automatically warmed towards you. They will respond either by way of prayers or other gestures of goodwill. In any case, it is one of our age old values. Like the saying goes; ‘agbanbo was kan e.‘ You too will become old someday.