Letter from Africa: Why age is just a number in Ghana

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Many births go unrecorded in Ghana

In our series of letters from African journalists, veteran Ghanaian journalist Elizabeth Ohene reflects on why in Ghana a person’s age is not etched in stone.

Ghanaians do not particularly love numbers. 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 story about that person.

I know that in many parts of the world, once you are born and you acquire a date of birth, it stays with you. It is unchangeable and you die with it.

In Ghana, it is common to see notices in 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 want to be so they can carry on receiving a salary for a few extra years.

According to the constitution, the retirement age for most public officers is 60.

Seven years younger

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.

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Incorrect birth records could undermine elections

I am writing about 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: This must mean Ghana is finally joining the rest of the world in paying respect to dates of birth.

“How can people want their dates of birth to be changed?” was the incredulous reaction to the story I heard from many young people.

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, according to him, mistakes had been made at the time of their employment by the payroll departments in entering the dates.

Why make a fuss about three years?

This phenomenon has been possible because very few births are recorded.

Once upon a time it was…

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