President Akufo-Addo during the 2022 State of the Nation Address
President Akufo-Addo during the 2022 State of the Nation Address

Age is not a number

(Over the weekend, I came across this article I wrote back in 2017 (not for the Daily Graphic), and it brought to mind a paragraph in President Akufo-Addo’s State of the Nation address this year in which he said: “Every child born in this country will be registered and the date of birth registered on the date you were born will remain your date of birth throughout your life. There will be no school age, no football age, no SSNIT age and no official age.” I offer this six-year old article to see if things have changed very much)

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It is not news that we are not particularly enamoured with numbers in Ghana. I am sure many people have heard me on the subject a few times already.

We tend to be quite lax especially with figures that have to do with age. Someone’s date of birth or age is not considered important and very rarely features in any mention of that person.

In many parts of the world, the day you make your entry into the world is recorded, that day is your date of birth, that date, DOB, stays with you, it is unchangeable and you die with it.

In Ghana it is a regular phenomenon to see adverts in the newspapers announcing a change in someone’s date of birth. This often happens when a working person’s date of retirement is approaching. People then swear an affidavit to change their profiles from the 59 year-olds they are known to be, to the 55-year-olds that they now want to be.

Some people have been known to swear affidavits to change their date of birth that would put them in Primary Class One before they were born. The most dramatic notice of change of date of birth I have seen was one that reduced an official’s age by seven years and it was published in the official gazette.

I return to this subject because of a recent news item that I thought went way beyond the extraordinary, even for Ghana. The news report said that about 800 teachers had applied to the Ghana Education Service to have their ages changed. Some wanted their dates of birth changed to make them younger and a few wanted their dates changed to make them older than what was on their documentation.

The news story was greeted with a lot of outrage and I said to myself the outrage must mean Ghana was finally joining the rest of the world in paying respect to dates of birth. Some innocent young people asked how can a date of birth be changed.

But then the head of one of the teaching unions came out to make a spirited defence of his members. The teachers wanted their dates of birth changed only because, at the time of their employment, mistakes had been made by the payroll departments in entering the dates.

This phenomenon of changing dates of birth has been possible really because very few births are recorded. Many parents simply do not bother to get the births of their children recorded and with time, the dates get lost in the mists of memory, especially in homes where birthdays are not celebrated.

GES

Ghana Education Service rules state that a birth certificate must be provided before a child can be enrolled in school; somehow or the other, many people get their children into school without birth certificates. When in later life, you require a birth certificate, you would go before a commissioner of oaths and offer a date that would be said to be based on the best “guessestimate” given you by your parents or family member.

In much later life, when you are approaching the compulsory retiring age of 60 and you desperately want to continue to work a few more years because you think you can’t survive on your pension, you go back to the commissioner of oaths and swear that you have now discovered compelling evidence that the original date on your certificate was wrong.

This total disregard for the sanctity of dates of birth manifests in other ways that sometimes undermines all official records in Ghana. I have seen schoolchildren who cannot be more than 14 years old who have voters registration cards. The law says you have to be 18 to register to vote.

The consequences might follow you through life unless you are prepared to go on paying visits to the commissioner of oaths to acquire new dates of birth. The police recruitment advertisements have a cut-off number of age 25. You are really 21 but have a voters’ registration card that says you are 26 because you passed yourself off as 19 when you were 14.

Sometimes it has been football players who try to shave off a number of years from their ages so they can participate in age-restricted competitions. These days technology is being deployed to ensure the integrity of such competitions, making it difficult for twentysomethings to participate in under-17 competitions.

Thus far, we have not made much progress with the many attempts to make people stick to one date of birth. There does exist, for example, a regulation issued by the head of the civil service some years ago which said public officials were not allowed to change their dates of birth during their time in the service. In other words, whatever date of birth you entered the service with, you were stuck with it, you couldn’t get younger or older by swearing an affidavit.

It was always going to be difficult to enforce this directive because there are many people among us who believe their ages are confidential and should not be advertised. You could ask someone how old he was and get a reply: is it my official or real age you want?

The new NPP government has promised that within its first year in office, a national identification system will be in place. In other words, all Ghanaians will have identification cards with their unchangeable biometric data and none of us will be able to swear an affidavit to acquire a new date of birth. There is a mass holding of breaths in progress.

Dramatic change

While I await this dramatic change, I have been wondering if there were any advantages in our attitude in regarding a person’s age as a changeable and confidential figure. My mind went to a sentence from an online article in a British newspaper I read earlier this year.

Those who follow tennis would recognise that this was part of a report during the Australian Open:

“A few hours after Serena Williams, 35, joined her 36-year-old sister, Venus, in the women’s final by trouncing the 34-year-old Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, Federer, 35, somehow conjured some more retro magic to beat Stan Wawrinka, a mere 31, for the 19th time in 22 matches”.

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I fear that faced with the possibility of such prose in our newspapers, many people are going to opt to keep dates of birth changeable and private.

The Daily Graphic still carries adverts announcing change of date of birth. (This sentence is new and not from 2017)

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