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African viewpoint: Old Mommies

Ghanaian President John Atta Mills
Ghana's president came to power promising to be a father to all

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Ghanaian writer Elizabeth Ohene considers the so-called terms of endearment that come with old age.

I had a birthday a few weeks back and I am now officially an old woman.

I cannot of course be the president's daughter, he was my contemporary at university, for goodness sake

No amount of black hair dye can change the fact.

A few kind people continue to say I am looking very well; but I know better than to be taken in by such words and anyway there is no running away from my body, which is brutally truthful with aches and pains.

But do I wince at the very thought of being old?

Well, I do not and I think this is because I have always been old.

Elderly advantages

As all first-born children know, you are never allowed to be young; you are old from the moment somebody is born after you.

Ghanaian female royal elders  [Photo by BBC News website reader Jeannie Elliott]
Being an elder often has nothing to do with how old you actually are

And it seems you do not really mind being old because the language and customs all seem to suggest that there are advantages in being old in Ghanaian society.

It is claimed we respect our elders, and you therefore think that being an elder is something you look forward to.

Then you discover that part of the reason people have such a cavalier attitude towards their real age is that in many African cultures being an elder has nothing to do with how old you are.

For example the title for a chief or king in all the languages in Ghana is the same as what we call a grandparent.

Nana, the title all Akan chiefs bear, means a grandparent and Togbe the title an Ewe chief carries, means a grandfather.

Thus even if an 18-year-old is made a chief, he or she becomes a Togbe, a Naa, a Nii or a Nana or a Mama.

Term of endearment

The unstated point seems to be it is not the position that demands our respect but people seeing you like their grandparent.

elderly Malian woman [Photo by BBC News website reader Torah Kachur]
Being called Mommie really only means that you are old and nameless

It seems the respect comes when people are able to link your status to some blood relationship with you and total strangers therefore call you Mommie, which really only means, "hey, you old woman without a name".

Transposing this rather delicate linguistic arrangement to the modern political set-up leads invariably into a lot of unintended difficulties.

A Ghanaian president of whatever age would be called "old man" by his staff; we once had a 30-something-year-old head of state and he was called old man by his staff; it is supposed to be a term of endearment that people have for their fathers.

It is as though you have to be somebody's father to have respect.


We have not had a female president yet but I suspect she will most likely be called Mommie - the irritating term for all old women.

The current Ghanaian president for example, promised he will be father to all of us. (I wonder if we are expected to call him Poppie?)

Cameroon clan elders  [Photo by BBC News website reader Jessica Sullivan]
Respect comes when people link your status to a blood relationship

That was always going to land him into trouble when members of his party expect and demand preferential treatment.

I notice whenever he addresses the nation he keeps referring to us his compatriots, as his brothers and sisters, and not his sons and daughters.

But then I do not really want to be his sister, I am quite satisfied with the brothers I have and I cannot of course be the president's daughter - he was my contemporary at university, for goodness sake.

I just want him to be my president.

Why can't we have any relationship unless it is translated into a blood relationship?

Can you imagine anybody calling Barack Obama, father of the American people, or Nicolas Sarkozy wanting to be father to the French nation or horror of horrors, Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian president, tolerating anybody over the age of 10 calling him father?

But over here, simply to get respect, yours truly is now grandmother to the nation.

Thanks for your comments. Please read a selection below:

East Africans call their leaders "Mzee" (old man) with the connotation that Mzee is naturally entitled to the choicest parts of goat meat and the national cake. Maybe that explains why women leaders never get traction or the popular vote in East Africa. Imagine calling a woman with the exalted title of "Mzee". Imagine letting her eat first before the men. What a total blasphemy of our cultural expectations and traditions.
Margaret S. Maringa, Kerugoya, Kenya
P/S: When Margaret becomes a leader somewhere - Africans should refer to me by the honorific title "Kazi Miingi" because there is still a lot of work outstanding around our continent - thanks to the continued selfishness of our bogus papas.

Our African way of showing respect to our elders works perfectly fine. I think the west can also learn a thing or two if they tried it. I work with a couple ladies older than my mother and instead of calling them by their first names I always say "Ms" and then their name and I have realised that they actually like it. Growing up in Zimbabwe, I always heard that it takes a village to raise a child and I liked it because that meant that I couldn't act a fool while playing outside with my friends in the neighbourhood because there was always some to bless me with some spanking regardless of whose parent they were.
Tendekai M, Toronto, Canada

In Kenya people of the generation of your parents will refer to you as his child and you are expected to address and give them respect just like you do to your parents. Respect for the elderly is not slavery nor worshiping the aged. It's a societal structure meant to preserve respect and care for the old. Compare to Europe where the aged a quickly dispatched to the house of old, a lonely place where elderly warm themselves under the morning sun waiting for the fate to decide their destiny. It's a scary experience. Africa has prepared a smooth transition, respectful strategy for its old as they live their twilight years. I wish the West could learn this vital lesson from Africa.
Thomas Yebei, Nairobi

It is a good African culture that must be preserved, as it knits the society together as one. We have extended family system here, where the son or daughter of your uncle could be raised up by you as your own and calls you 'father'. And in death no mourners are hired to weep for you. You naturally have them in abundance. Every elder in the family is either father or mother, and contemporaries are brothers and sisters not uncle, aunt, nephew, niece etc.
Ayorinde, Abuja, Nigeria

I very much agrees with Iipo of Nigeria. Even in Zambia, among the Tonga people we have an adage: 'mungu munene uvumbwa matu', literally meaning 'an old pumpkin is to be covered with leaves', meaning that the wrongs of an elderly person are supposed to be kept secretively. Now imagine in a continent where we have rampant cases on abuse of authority and corruption among senior government officials including some of our Presidents; the moment we attach we ourselves to this 'blood' relationship, means we are buying ourselves unnecessary and blind loyalty of keeping quiet even when things are being done wrong because the doers are our 'relatives who deserve respect'. That's why in Zambia, the Catholic even asked the nation to stop calling our Presidents Father of The Nation, because a country cannot be reduced to a simple nuclear family at all. Such titles even create arrogant, pompous and selfish Presidents who sees everything in the nation as theirs personally, people inclusive and dare to remain in power till death. Let us take the presidency as just the presidency, and whoever assumes that seat should remain just as he is supposed to be - President of the nation with duties and obligations to follow the law and look after the affairs of the nation judiciously; and every citizen should have the right to criticise him for his mistakes; and call him Mr President, period.
Mazuba Mwiinga, Livingstone, Zambia

The timeless African tradition of not calling elders by name ought to foster on our leaders responsibility and protection for those under their authority. Unfortunately this is lost in the modern set up of governance where the leaders only take advantage of this show of respect in looting the treasury and expect not to be questioned!
abiye, Port Harcourt Nigeria

I was brought up to a great extent in Ghana. I am not Ghanaian but lived there for 17 years and went to primary school with the mentioned 30-something year old president. As a result I understand this Ghanaian custom and at the same time understand the author's questioning the logic involved. I suggest that Europe, North America and so on have sadly lost the respect older people should receive and therefore the total dissolution of the extended family. Europe etc. now has an aging population and has dwindling resources to look after them, as a result they are now trying to re-introduce the concept of the young caring for the old. Don't reduce the importance of the young respecting the old because if you do it will be the thin end of the European wedge.
Tim Crilly, Hahnheim, Germany

Traditionally, in Africa, we all see ourselves as belonging to the same one big family. Hence, every elderly person would therefore be seen as mommy, daddy, uncle or aunt as it is culturally required to respect the elderly and in most African societies you can't refer to such people by name. However, when push turns to shove, we know who the real daddy or mommy is.
Tony Adebayo, Lagos, Nigeria

Calling your parents by their names is a sign of disrespect here as well. As young children, we have devised ways to circumvent that by calling them by our own terms: "Yomes" for Mummy and "Yobis" for daddy and others. However, as we grew older, it become clear that anyone who is older than you becomes either your "Uncle" or you "Auntie". The old men are either "Yaba" or old women "Haboba".
Edward Eremugo, Juba, Sudan

what i would say is that this culture is something the west might want to copy. there is too much disrespect for authority
KS Asante, Lawrenceville, USA

I think you need to get out of a western mentality and embrace the culture that we have as africans, I want where I live amongst my people to feel like family...more concern, respect, and love comes that way, maybe if we had that energy in our government in america things would be better. I get the feeling that you have gotten out of touch with who and what you are, the respect that we show to our elders as african people is beautiful and should be embraced, not embarrassed for. sounds like someone needs to do some "soul" searching...if there is any of it left.
Sekhmet Ankh Amun, USA

I think it is high time this respect we give elders is abolished particularly for our rulers. Most of the evils they perpetrate are covered in the name of respect for elders or rulers. The act of impunity is embellished in this so-called respect and to hold our leaders accountable, this useless titles they carry around must be stripped! Lastly, I remember, a number of times in Europe, I have mistakenly attempted to bow to my professors(thereby embarrassing them) forgetting that this is not Africa where we worship elderly people particularly those who are at better advantage than us!
James, Portugal

This issue of respecting elders depends on the up-bringing of an individual or kids. Train up a child the way he should grow, and when he is old, he will never depart from it. People should respect one another even if you are not blood related. Whoever is older than you even for a second or an hour, deserved to be respected. Let alone someone older than your parents. A simple address like Mummy, Daddy, Uncle, Aunty, Brother or Sister is more than enough to make that individual feel his or her pride amongst other people. The world we are living is like a mirror - whatever you do today, will reflect on you tomrrow. Respect others as human beings the same way you respect yourself and you will be respected in return.
Ibrahim Sankoh, Melbourne, Australia

This is not only in West Africa; in East Africa as well we refer to our elders, even if we do not know them, as Baba and Mama. This is to show the respect. If we didn't this it is taken as disrespecting and you will not get the attention.
tesfay, Austraila

In many African societies, we see everyone as a blood relation in the proverbial sense. There's an old adage that says, "It takes a man and a woman to bring forth a child and a whole community to raise him." I believe that's how it was in the past until as recently as the 1970s. Addressing someone as a brother/sister/father/mother is part of the whole unique African experience.
Odehe Bannerman, Accra, Ghana

Personally I like our Ghanaian system of respecting old age. There is something about experience that only time can buy so we do not need to feel bad or "lonely" about how we do things in Ghana.
Afua Ofori-Anti, Tema, Ghana

That is Africa for you, where every one is related to each other. It is considered a mark of disrespect to refer to elders by their names, and since we have to talk to them, we had to find other ways to refer to them.
Kingsley Ezenekwe, Lagos, Nigeria

I think this generally undermines our intelligence as Africans. We are unable to demand what we truly deserve from our superiors because of this false relationship we impose on them. It even extends beyond governance so much that in some establishments, the head is often addressed as mummy or daddy and former President Obasanjo was generally referred to as "Baba".
Iipo, Lagos, Nigeria

Another interesting, generic, all-encompassing term widely used in these parts would be "Boss", which is often used to connote anyone who probably has the means to extend favours or benefits. It is therefore used to court the favour and goodwill of anyone from whom help might be needed or simply to show respect. In business circles "Manager" is often used to demonstrate some sort of subservience and a ready-to-serve posture to the person being addressed.
Terence, Accra, Ghana

I have seen a lot of older people in Benin City, Nigeria where I grew up addressing younger people who are not related by blood as their children, "how are you my son/daughter" whenever you encounter an older person. I believe this is connected to the saying "it takes a village to raise a child." I was brought up to respect my elders even though we are only a few months apart. Again, respect is only given to those who are deserving and worthy of it.
Omorodion Osula, Boston, USA

A Ghanaian co-worker refers to me as "uncle". This now makes sense. I am 10 years older and work as an engineer while he is a technician. I suppose I'm no higher than "uncle" because I have a boss in the office who works in a higher position than mine.
Fred Burton, Charlotte, NC, USA

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