We Are Sentenced To A Lonely Old Age, By Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú
For many of us, our old age will be mired in nostalgia, regret and guilt. We will live long lonely lives with our children far away. As we age, we will shun visits to them, preferring the comfort of the familiar which is the home we have lived in and the country we know. We will maintain a carapace of happiness that hides a soft underbelly of pain. We will die wondering, has it been worth it?
The Nigerian rich and upper middle class folded their arms and allowed Nigeria to go to the dogs. We reasoned we don’t need to care if others go hungry, once we have had our fill. The result is here! We are destined to become losers and geezers. As most of us saunter into middle age, an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation, like never before in the history of Nigeria, is becoming our portion. Our fathers, who retired as teachers, professors, engineers, doctors, civil servants, lawyers, and are now in their seventies and eighties, had it all good. They retired into a rich life of continued service in their communities with us, their children, within reach. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for the generation in middle age now to retire into that kind of life, and the worrying trend is set to continue.
Most Nigerians currently in middle age went to public schools throughout their schooling years. The Nigeria of their childhood and teenage years was great and held so much promise. As we grew, the quality of education and the environment within which education was acquired tanked. Most of our fathers in the academia and medical professions fled the country. It then marked the beginning of the decline in the quality and delivery of education and services, which has continued to manifest over the years. Nigeria’s population ballooned without commensurate opportunities for employment and social mobility. With fewer opportunities and fading hope for the future under visionless military rule, young men and women left the country for various reasons, the fundamental of which was economic. Those who did not leave, managed to do well for themselves but they confronted the reality of a future that does not exist for their own children. They responded by sending their children abroad to study, to get a better education.
The decision to emigrate for those who left on one hand and the decision to send children abroad to study for those who stayed is taking serious sociological and psychological tolls on our society. Both categories of Nigerians are facing a very lonely old age. Those who emigrated are not prepared for life in old people’s homes in their countries of sojourn and coming back to the country they left in their youth is not an option. Even though some invested in Nigeria by building houses to which they can stay on return, they can never make it back home till death overtakes them. This is because they have taken electricity for granted, they are used to water that is safe to drink, to police which do not take bribes, public schools that are good, great medical facilities that serve all comers, and access to public services where everyone, regardless of their backgrounds, line up patiently to be served by government clerks in their adopted countries.
Those who stayed back in Nigeria share the same font of dislocation that is often difficult to ignore. They spend most of their earnings paying school fees for children, most of who will never return to Nigeria, due to the lack of opportunities.
Many of those who jetted out never made peace with their decision – the classic immigrant’s dilemma. Getting caught between two places and cultures is, in many ways, the condition of being an immigrant. There is the Nigeria they left, and the adoptive country they live in, often with tenuous efforts to assimilate. They feel stuck and torn between nostalgia and reality. It is a complicated thing to leave where your people have lived for generations, and where your parents or grandparents will live out their old age without you. In middle age, most immigrants realise this complex equation they are in. It is a sad experience to exist without roots. And certainly not an easy decision to abandon familial bond and replace this with nothing. Immigration is a long, painful journey of taking residence in a strange land where established norms are different from whom and what you are, and what you know. By the time most people have the opportunity to become citizens of their adopted countries, they would have given the toughest, most useful and tender parts of themselves to their adopted countries.
Those who stayed back in Nigeria share the same font of dislocation that is often difficult to ignore. They spend most of their earnings paying school fees for children, most of who will never return to Nigeria, due to the lack of opportunities. Their children are sent abroad to obtain good education and exposure and come back better equipped to take on challenges at home. Of course, time rolled by quickly and Nigeria remained the same, if not worse, and there is nothing to return to. These children stay back in Western countries where a modern, successful future is guaranteed. Their parents are left alone in middle age to a life they never imagined when these children were born. The McMansions they built will be left desolate with others inheriting them.
We all are going to live this dysfunction, this underdevelopment and this insecurity, regardless of the personal comfort we may have built around us. We are all going to serve this sentence, in this prison we have allowed to stand.
The Nigeria of our fathers sold us short. While those in middle age are at the peak of their various careers in different sectors of the economy, yet they have done nothing to demand a just and egalitarian society. Those in politics are no different from those who ruined Nigeria. Actually they are in a race to outdo themselves, and those who are not in politics are contributing to the decay in one way or another. The good thing is that we all are in this together. Dr. Olusola Saraki had Bukola come back from England to live in Nigeria. Even if a crook, he learnt the ropes and understands the people and politics. How much of Ilorin does Bukola Saraki’s children know? They probably know more of London and Geneva than Ilorin. Where are Dino Melaye’s children? None of his children will be able to sing any song in Yoruba nor will they be able to speak Okun dialect. How then can they aspire to lead like their fathers? The same goes for each one of us in middle age on different scales. We all are going to live this dysfunction, this underdevelopment and this insecurity, regardless of the personal comfort we may have built around us. We are all going to serve this sentence, in this prison we have allowed to stand.
Middle age is that phase of life in which the disappointments and anxieties of unfulfilling work, unhappy family life, and poor health are intensified. In middle age, human possibilities and freedoms contract dramatically and pressures from all sides exaggerate the conviction that there is no escape. While there is nothing new about this state of midlife resignation, it takes on a new force and meaning in the global age of lost community and social isolation. Our lives are ever more psychologically and economically precarious; families, homes, jobs and pensions that we look to as guarantees of a secure future are now sources of deep uncertainty and anxiety. We are sandwiched between a regrettable past and a hopeless future. For many of us, our old age will be mired in nostalgia, regret and guilt. We will live long lonely lives with our children far away. As we age, we will shun visits to them, preferring the comfort of the familiar which is the home we have lived in and the country we know. We will maintain a carapace of happiness that hides a soft underbelly of pain. We will die wondering, has it been worth it?