Burkinabe elders exchanging pleasantries on a village street.
Ask any African in an informal setting for his or her age and it would seem like you desecrated that person’s dead ancestors' graves. If you don't get that from the steely look that greets you, you would surely get it from the reticence to answer or just by the sheer prevarication before you get some sort of answer. That is after you have been seriously grilled as to the motivations for such an inquiry.
So what is it about the age of an African that makes it a closely guarded secret? Why is it treated as the utmost disrespect to inquire about when a person arrived on this planet?
Age (our ages) is/are one of the few things we use to measure the passing of time; much as we use seconds, minutes and hours on the faces of our watches and clocks. But ages are used for far more than that; they are also used as benchmarks of progress in the lives of individuals. Why else do we celebrate birthdays if not to see what we have achieved in the past 12 months?
From very early on, ages start playing their role in deciding our place; they usually determine when our kids start kindergarten school, determine what classes they are placed and sometimes when they get into universities. They can also determine what kind of jobs they can get when they leave school, as some employers are wont to use arbitrary cutoff age limits for some job applications.
Which might explain the reluctance to reveal one's age, as it might reveal an inability to keep up with the expected pace of personal growth and achievement. Much in the same way an unmarried middle aged man is looked down on or a single mother is seen as being embarrassing to the family or society.
So we guard our birth dates jealously for fear of being seen as failures for not accomplishing everything set out in front of us, for not doing as well exactly like our mates or contemporaries.
And when we see someone, a child maybe, who has achieved some sort of proficiency in a skill at a young age, no matter how basic such proficiency is, we are keen to praise such to the highs heavens. It might be a child actor or singer, doesn't matter; we seem so surprised by it all we begin to rate the child star maybe even more than an adult in the same field, solely on how young and precocious the child star is.
But our ages are one of the few things about ourselves that we have absolutely no control over. So it rankles me particularly when Africans use it to pass judgement on the success or otherwise of some other person’s life.
Everyone has a different path to take in life; some will have an easy ride, some others will have it decidedly tougher. The most important thing is to keep moving and remember that at the end it is always going to be different for everyone. So also would be the end.