This has been an issue on my heart for a while now but it never occurred to me to vocalize it. It was one of those random thoughts I allowed to flit through my mind but following the #EndSars protests online, I realized that this is more than a localized issue but one that cuts across in different African cultures. And don’t be deceived by the title; I don’t condone disrespecting elders or any other persons for that matter. I believe that as humans, we should all have mutual respect for each other, unless a person’s actions prove otherwise. My problem is with this culture of blind respect simply because an individual is older. That is where my frustration lies and is the basis for this vexation write-up.
Living in Ghana, from a young age, we are taught to respect our elders by addressing them with appropriate titles and with different types of customs. Calling older people by their first names is a big NO in Ghana and when talking to them, your sentences must include “please.” When an older person sends you, you jump and do their bidding first before you ask questions and lord forbid, that you give or receive something with your left hand; an utmost sign of disrespect to many. But all of these that I have mentioned and more, is not my headache when it comes to respecting elders. To be honest, although I might not agree with these, it is not so hard to hold my tongue and follow these customs in order to avoid any conflict. So then, what exactly is my problem?
Well, first, I don’t believe that age is a good enough quantifier to determine who deserves respect. Some argue that an older person is usually wiser because they have lived longer. I don’t agree. Living long does not automatically come with wisdom unless a person is introspective and has learned from their mistakes and the world around them. If not, life has just happened to pass them by without any sign of personal growth or insightful tidbits to offer. Instead, I believe that respect is earned. I would be courteous and polite to all people irrespective of age because it’s the basic human thing to do. But if you want me to respect you, then you must ask what you have done that is worthy of respect and why is according you that respect is such an issue to you? Bluntly put, the character traits of some aged people are more than enough to rile up even the most even-tempered character and such a person is not one I would blindly respect simply because they are older.
Secondly, in Ghana, the notion of respecting your elders has morphed into a situation where an older person is never wrong. I may not have lived long but I can tell you with surety that this notion is entirely false. As long as an older person said it, a younger person is supposed to accept it is total bs. Instead, I will ask why a particular statement is said or why a person believes in a certain notion. Questioning a person’s line of thinking should not be seen as rude but an invitation to discourse; an opportunity to discuss ideas and different viewpoints and if possible, reach a consensus. Unfortunately, it is prevalent in the Ghanaian society that a younger person’s disagreement with an opinion is a disagreement with the older person and can even be seen as a ‘personal attack.’ Simply accepting everything said, hinders the critical thinking ability of many young people while limiting their sense of expression and ability to vocalize their opinons and ideas. Granted, these should be done in a respectful manner but notwithstanding, let us normalize questioning why certain statements or demands are made by the older generation and these should be reasoned as to whether we follow through or not.
Now, let me talk about another side of this respect issue that baffles me greatly. In Ghana, a younger person’s views are more likely to be dismissed if they have tattoos, extra piercings, dreadlocks, twisted hair or an appearance which can be considered an oddity usually among the older generation. Bring in a ‘clean-shaven’ youth with no visible tattoos and more conservative clothing, and before the person opens their mouth to speak, the older generation is more likely to perceive such an individual as deserving of more respect than the one previously described. I find this incredulous, and I am putting this in the nicest way possible. To me, evaluation of a person’s character is most paramount, and I want to know how a person thinks before I make a judgment on how I treat such a person. Ways of expressing oneself through clothing or bodily modifications is not a justifiable basis on lowering your respect for a person and is hindering many older people from listening to valid and ingenious ideas from people younger than them.
Lastly, remember how I began this piece by saying #EndSars inspired me to write? I have been encouraged and I am proud of the Nigerian youth who took a bold step to bring a definite end to the police brutality employed by the SARS unit. This movement has seen it grow to become one that now demands accountability and transparency among Nigerian leaders plus insisting on an end to bad governance in Nigeria. Mildly put, this outburst did not sit too well with some Nigerian leaders and patronizing tones have been used by several leaders both on social media and in parliamentary talks all in a bid to discourage these Nigerian youth. My view? I love it. I enjoying seeing this disrupt of respect when none has been earned. Titles and age are not respect-worthy if you have done nothing to earn it and the Nigerian youth have exemplified this point for me. As a young person, I will not relent on tasking you to be transparent and accountable, regardless of your age, especially when you are in a position of power or service.
So, there you have it. My beef with this blind culture of respect in Ghana which I do not see as having any profitable end. I should be able to question why a particular culture is practiced, why certain decisions and utterances are made and no matter my age or appearance, I should still be able to contribute to meaningful discussions and have my opinions valued. Respect is earned and that cuts across all ages.