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African viewpoint: Old bones

Ahmed Muhamed Dore and his wife on their wedding day
Ahmed Muhamed Dore, who says he is 112, married Safia Abdulleh, aged 17, in Somalia last month

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Ghanaian Elizabeth Ohene considers the ageing process.

A news item from Somalia recently made it into the headlines, which was not about Islamists and not about pirates.

The lad is 25, admittedly a Nigerian 25
English football manager

According to the story, a Somali man aged 112 had taken a 17-year-old girl for his bride.

Now a story like that coming out of any country would be certain to make the headlines.

There are not many 112-year-olds in the world and the ones that there are would not normally be in a state to be taking brides of any age, never mind 17-year-old ones.

But something in my old bones tells me this story cannot be true.

I am afraid every time there is a story out of Africa that features figures or age, that story has to be taken with a large dose of salt.

Some very unkind people have said that African teams have tended to perform well in the age-sensitive football competitions, because, well, they cheat.

Nigeria-bashing?

To put it kindly, these people insinuate that our 17-year-olds are not really 17 and some of our players in the under-20 competition, are in fact, 19 going on 25.

If you counted some people's stated age, they would have started school, a clear two years before they were born

I would not be Nigeria-bashing if I recount that a couple of weeks before the start of the Under-17 Fifa World Cup competition in Nigeria, the host nation threw out 15 of the youngsters that had been camped for the competition. They were over 17.

Last year an English football manager made a comment about a Nigerian player which would illustrate the point I am making: "The lad is 25, admittedly a Nigerian 25."

There is currently in Ghana, a living example of this situation in the person of one of our famous players who participated in the Under-20 football competition some 10 or more years ago and was given a contract by a European team.

After playing for three years, it became obvious that instead of reaching 23 and the height of his playing prowess, he looked and felt more like 33 and at the end of his playing career.

I once heard an Ethiopian athlete put it a touch delicately: "Age, or how old somebody is, we don't worry or care about."

Nigerian under 17 football players
Wrist scans were used to determine the age of players at the U-17 World Cup

My theory is there is not a deliberate attempt to cheat or lie about how old we are.

We simply do not believe in counting certain things, age in particular.

At the naming ceremony of my 27-year-old friend's first child, her mother, that is the baby's grandmother, told the assembled gathering that she was at least 100 years old.

I attended the funeral of the mother of a work colleague, who was at the time, 40 years old. We were told at the funeral that the old lady was 100 years old.

It is the practice in the public service in Ghana that a year or a few months before people are due to go on retirement, they swear an affidavit to the effect that the age they entered the service with was wrong and new information has been revealed.

Instead of approaching 60, which is the retirement age they say they are in fact, 52 years old and still have eight more years to serve.

If you counted some people's stated age, they would have started school, a clear two years before they were born.

It has been the law in Ghana since 1927 that all births and deaths should be registered.

The last time I checked, less than 40% of births were registered and as for deaths, less than 20% are registered.

The news out of Somalia might have put a smile on the faces of some or horrified others, but I wouldn't worry too much about it.

Age, or how old people are, is not something we in Africa worry about.


Thanks for your comments. Please read a selection below:

I remember in 1997, my elder sister was getting married and the usual tradition, her would-be father-in-law visited our family in our rural home. He got talking to my dad, and shared about their probable ages. Of course none of them knew with certainty when they were born since their parents didn't keep any record. (They didn't even know anything about years!) My dad said he was 43, and gave reasons why he thought so. He also estimated my grandmother's (his mother) age to be about 80. My grandma, who was seated with us, protested at my father saying he had no respect for age, and that she was at least 2000 years old! Poor grandma, she died in 2002.
Musyoki Kimanthi, Nairobi, Kenya

My dear writer I would like to say that we in Africa should start worrying about age or how old people are especially when it pertains to sports and international competitions where age is a big factor. We should have some measure of shame in us when telling lies. Think of the embarrassment Nigerians would have felt if we had won the just concluded Under 17 Football World Cup and had to relinquish the cup to Switzerland because it was discovered that we fielded an over-aged player! (It has been stated that we actually fielded one). I would have been thoroughly embarrassed because even my African brother friends would have vilified me as if I was the culprit. We Africans need to really consider age and the rules when doing some certain things. By the way, I wonder what was the attraction between a "112" year old and a 17 year old!
Chigbo Mgbemene, Nsukka, Nigeria.

This put a smile on my ageing face - and I am officially a mere 32. It is true though that in the past, registration officials - colonial ones - used to write whatever they wanted on African people's IDs, including giving out new names. While Elizabeth has a point, I also suspect soccer players manipulate their ages to get the best possible contracts overseas. It all boils down to the 300 pound gorilla in the room, namely poverty that dogs our resource countries.
Hungwe Matapatira Chasura, Pedyonekure, Zimbabwe

The first thing I thought when I first read the story of the 112 year old Somali man and his 17-year-old bride was, how do they know his age? I am also of Ghanaian descent and I have gone to so many birthday parties where the person in question turns 50 every 5 years. I have come to realize that people do not pay much attention to their age …when I told my father about this story all he said was, age .... it's just a number.
Lissa, Canada

Let's stop beating ourselves about how old people are or aren't and worry more about the extent to which they are fulfilling their God-ordained purpose. No one can cheat nature anyway. Time has a way of showing the world just how old we really are but what matters more o me is that our live should count for something.
della, Bamenda, Cameroon

I'm Nigerian and very proud of my country and heritage. I see what Nigeria is going through now as just a transition phase for us because we will soon emerge from the shadows of corruption to the true giants of Africa in every positive sense.

But I must disagree with this view because I see it as a defence to lying on the part of Nigerian players on their age. All these players know their real ages and should stop lying about it whether registered or not in birth certificates. This does not say well for the country!!! Whether age or not is important to you, tell your real age and leave it to those who are concerned about it.
Sandra Clifford, Jos, Nigeria

Thanks, finally an article out Somalia that made it into the headlines, which was not about Islamists and not about pirates.
Mahad Aden, Toronto

Elizabeth, Thanks sister for putting these stories in indifferent perspective .
Axmed Gurey, Rochester, MN

I personally only enquired about my age when i was about 15, so it is right to say we africans have a lot more issues going on than to worry about ones age. i once asked my grandmother how old she was, she replied that she was born in the year when such and such saint was killed. so people recall time by the happening of important events, just like people use to mark history by events. (e.g birth of jesus or the migration of hijra)
mukhtar , jigjiga/somalia now living in london

The African age thing is all a matter of guess work. Until recently, even most urban towns and cities in Africa did not have civil status registries anybody could write home about. And today, in my own country, most births in rural areas are not registered. So giving the age of anybody born within such an African environment today is done by some ancient way of tracing market days, moons per year and so on, all of which depend on the quality of memory of those doing the guessing. With the foregoing, it could rightly be said that Africans involved in the age game may not necessarily be cheating when they are scientifically found to be over-age but may just be victims of some fragile memory.
Chief Bisong Etahoben, Yaounde, CAMEROON



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