I recently attended a friend’s (Chike Amazu) fortieth birthday party, a lavish event by London standards. The celebrant had asked guests to leave their little tots at home and also discouraged them from wearing any traditional dress to the event in the invites mailed out weeks earlier. It is not difficult to decipher the reasons why invitees were given such ‘strict conditions’. The celebrant wanted everyone attending to boogie down and have a good time. But it wasn’t to be, sure people had a nice time but they also had the kids for company. Even the celebrant and his wife Oby had their three children present as child minder costs for the evening would have made the party an unattractive Saturday night option, many of the guests would have obviouslypreferred a quite Saturday night lay-in if indeed the celebrant had gone ahead and enforced the ‘no kids’ code.
This is now the second fortieth birthday party that I have attended in recent months, the other being the surprise birthday party that Helen Ogbu organised for her hubby Nze Sunny Ogbu sometime last year. As always, such events provide both the celebrants and the guests good opportunities to reflect and ponder on life because of the significance of hitting the age of 40.
Back in the day, there used to be a saying that a fool at forty is a fool forever. What this statement means is that at forty, a man or woman having almost lived half his or her life on planet earth should have well been able to put most structures in place in his or her life. There are expectations that at forty, one would have at least started a family and settled nicely into a comfortable career or business, in addition to other expectations. If however, one hasn’t been able to accomplish all these, there is still a consolation in the other saying that life actually begins at forty. This second chance option does indeed look more appealing.
However, in our own situation these may not simply be the case because of the peculiar nature of our social, economic and political environment. A situation that has condemned many of us to the perennial late starter syndrome (LSS). Unlike our contemporaries in other countries of the world who are fast – tracked through most of life’s processes (education, career, family etc) in a developed system that works and provides a social safety net for strugglers. In our own case we have to struggle in almost every way such that by the time we are forty, the wind may have gone out of us.
Take for instance the situation with the average Nigerian student who may just be lucky to leave secondary school at 17 or 18 years, then he or she (depending on luck and family fortunes) may have a longer wait before going to university as a couple of years may be lost to the machinations of the university admission body (JAMB). If the candidate is lucky he or she may finally get into a university at the ages of 20 or 22 and then the real battle starts. There are ASUU, NANS, NASUU, FUEL, RELIGIOUS and other strikes to contend with, this is the reason why 4 year degree courses stretch on indefinitely. A situation that has now turned many students into professional students (or life students).
Luckily the student may finally leave the university at the age of 26 or 27 depending on the circumstances; there may be another 1 or 2 year wait to be assimilated into one of the many batches of the national youth service scheme (NYSC). Just on the borderline of hitting 30 years, the student finally leaves the system by which time he or she is already battered, bruised and frustrated. But all is not over yet. The student then queues up with those before him or her in the labour market, a process that can last forever. With time running ever so fast, few years down the line the magical forty years would be staring the person right in the face.
Going back to Chike’s party, he used the occasion to thank God, his wife and others who had made life easy and difficult for him at the same time, he narrated his life story in sombre tones and recounted how his bosom friend (Fidelis Abor) had encouraged, supported and sponsored him to London by sending the sum of £600 to him in 1989, money that he used to finance his trip. As he looked into the faces of his many guests, he said that each of the faces had a story linked to the story of his life.
Backstage at the event, I encountered and struck up a conversation with some brothers who bore out their soul to me. They were already in panic because they had just hit forty and were yet to settle down. According to them, it is due to no fault of theirs as they have been going through life’s many rough patches. They had actually come to the party hoping to meet some nice decent women. A tough call indeed it was on their parts as disappointingly, most of the sisters at the party had their hubbies in tow.
As I write this, there is still that anxiety that ‘Obi is no longer a boy’. Just as I have been attending other people’s fortieth birthday parties, it shall soon be my turn, real soon and then I would tell my own story. But before that time how does one go about planning and preparing for his fortieth birthday? Is it something that one eagerly looks forward to and awaits or is it something that you pretend that it is not quite important?
Chike has already set the tone at his party as he instructed the deejay at his party to play only old school tunes, it was nice to shuffle one’s feet again to the original beats of Shalamar, Earth, Wind and Fire, The Commodores, Grace Jones, Kool & The Gang and the rest of them, nostalgic reminders of the days of old. I was quite proud that I hadn’t forgotten my Bobby Brown back shuffle moves too, even Uche my wife was surprised that this brother still has some deft moves in him, enough to turn some heads. Funnily at the party, one of the brothers that came to the party with a mission to meet his future wife actually met her or so he thought. But by the time he told this ‘stray’ 20 year-old girl his age, she excused herself and disappeared, she avoided him the rest of the night. He wishes he had done this earlier, years ago but then so do we all.
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