As a rule, I don’t celebrate my birthday. But I help others celebrate theirs through organisation, funding and or participation, when the need arises. Indeed, I have for years been participating in celebrating my children’s birthdays.
I hardly care to remember my birthday. I only have an inkling that it falls officially on October 14. Still, it comes and passes uneventfully; sometimes I would not remember until the next day. Unless if someone reminds me.
Like the banks. This year it was the two banks where I maintain accounts that reminded me it was the day – by wishing me a Happy Birthday. Then, late in the evening I got a phone call from Ambrose Bernard Gowang, a colleague at the office, who also wished me a Happy Birthday. Though I was grateful to him and told him so, I also explained to him why I don’t attach much significance to the celebration of my own birthday.
Then, I was astonished, nay taken aback, yesterday when my colleagues at the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) invited me from my office to the “general office” where most of them have their desks. They wanted to show me “something”, they said. I am the director in charge of the media and publicity unit in the university and they all work under/with me.
As I walked into the big room, excited cries of “Happy Birthday to you!” and “For he is a jolly good fellow!” rented the air. Every staff of the directorate (except the Regional Media Officers, who are based in the states) was standing there, clapping and chorusing the joyous felicitation. I was momentarily speechless.
One piece of attraction was in fact the cake that was neatly arranged on a small desk. At first I thought it was three copies of my recently-released biography of Alhaji Mamman Shata, the foremost Hausa musician. The cake was made in the shape of the book, complete with the exact design, title, byline, size and colours. It was so perfect that one would think it was the book!
In an appreciation speech, I expressed joy and happiness at the kind gesture of my colleagues, for the effort they put in organising that unique celebration. Inwardly, I wondered why they spent so much to do that, especially in these lean times. I also wondered if I really deserved to be celebrated!
In the speech, I told them a story of why I have never celebrated my own birthday and why I don’t put so much store to it. Here is the story, with a few additional details thrown in:
I was born in the ’60s at a small village in today’s Katsina State which had no even a primary school, hospital or market, not to talk of a tarred road, electricity or pipe-borne water. (Dear reader, I was not born in Sheme town, whose name I bear as my surname; but that’s a story for another day). In those days, there was no register for births or deaths or weddings in that village. It was unlike today when everything has changed (there are university graduates and students in the village, which has also grown into a small town). So, when I was born there was no birth certificate given or kept. And my father, who was virtually the only “boko” literate person in the village, was not in town at the time.
Then a time came for me to go to the secondary school. My father personally escorted me to Government College, Kaduna, where I had gained admission. The day was October 14, 1979 – exactly two weeks after Shehu Shagari took office as the first Executive President of Nigeria.
Sometime later in the school, we (the students) were required to fill a form. There were boxes for names (surname first), date of birth (with separate boxes for the day, the month and the year), etc. Now, I had never been told my birth-date or even my age, so I didn’t know what to write. Suddenly, the first significant date in my life that I could recall at that material time cropped up, October 14 – the day my father took me to the school. So I quickly filled that date into the form. I also guessed my age to be 13, and I wrote 1966.
That was how 14th October, 1966 came to be my official date of birth. I used the date in filling any official form throughout my school and working life.
But there was a time in the early ’90s when I added a year to my life and claimed 1965 as my year of birth. That was after a chat with the mother of someone who was said to have been born the same week as I in that village. But I had to revert to 1966 when I made further inquiries to find the exact date of my birth. Curiously, I never asked my father about my birth date; I thought it was improper (you had to be from my type of background to understand).
One day, I found the exact date – from my father. It was after my father passed on in April, 2004. I inherited his books and documents. But I didn’t go through them all immediately. It took some years. One day, in my leisure time, I took the books and papers and started going through them. I knew that my dad used to keep a diary of some important events of his life or even national ones. He wrote such dates in various exercise books. Sometimes he would write on a piece of paper, which he would tuck inside a book. I guess that I inherited such record-keeping disposition from him; I started keeping diaries since my first year in college.
As I went through my father’s documents I came across his diaries. In them, I read about his travels, his marriages, his thoughts, his activities as a member of the NPN, his acquaintance with Mamman Shata, his purchases, his philanthropy, and events such as the death of Sultan Abubakar III, the death of Malam Aminu Kano, the deposition of Sultan Dasuki, the ouster of Shonekan by the military, Nigeria’s success in the USA soccer tournament, the day my sister Amina was born, etc.
Then I saw it: my birth date. My father had written clearly that I, his son, was born on 8th July, 1968. That means I had been adding two years to my age in all my official dealings. The feeling was so humbling.
Having known the truth, I was advised by a friend of mine that I should start using my real birth date thenceforth, since that was the absolute truth. Another friend said I should maintain the adopted date because I had been using it for so long.
I stuck to the old date. I have two reasons. One, all my documents, including my international passports, driver’s license and school testimonials, bear it. If I changed it at this stage in my life, especially since it would involve reducing my age by two years, some people would think that I was trying to cheat. In recent years I came across scandals involving political office candidates or civil servants who reduced their ages. Two, I’m simply comfortable with the adopted date; after all, age is just a number, as the saying goes.
The date my father gave actually made sense. I was put in primary school at the age of 6, and I joined Class One during the school’s third term; my guardian said he could not wait for the intake of the new Class One, which would be made after the end-of-session holiday. I was supposed to join the new intake when school resumed, but I simply located my old classmates, who were starting Class Two, and sat in the class. No one cared to tell me to leave. That’s how I spent five years plus one term in primary school instead of six years before going to the college, where I began the futile search for my correct birth date.
If I had asked my father about the date I was born, he would have certainly told me. But I never did. Consequently, I became indifferent towards celebrating my own birthday. I do not know which one to celebrate – the real one of 1968 or the adopted one of two years earlier. It was only yesterday that I was compelled to celebrate the one I have always written in my documents. Thank you guys for the kind gesture.
Birthdays are an eye-opener: they remind us to appreciate God for giving us long life, good health and prosperity. I have got all three. They also remind us about our immortality. Both sides of the coin contain important lessons for us all. The greatest lesson for me, indeed, is that what you do with your life – the positive imprints you etch on the canvass of the society – is what truly matters. Celebrating your longevity is a personal choice. I’d always help others to celebrate, while maintaining a studied silence on my own milestones. That, I reckon, is also a choice.