Tuesday, May 17, 2022

OPINION COLUMN

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ELECTION DAY IN THE GAMBIA

views of a senior citizen

”There was a time in years past when the month of December meant that Fajara Hotel, one of the premier hotels in the Bakau Fajara area at that time, was a hub of social and commercial activity. The tourist season would be picking up steam in the run up to Christmas, and coaches full of tourists from all over northern Europe, would be dropping off and collecting passengers throughout the day. The hotel’s forecourt would be full of vendors trying to sell their wood carvings and various other handicrafts. And in the evenings, the night club would be playing host to both in-house guests and any cashed-up locals who were looking for a good night out.

Well that was then and this is now. Much has happened since including the Covid 19 pandemic which has debilitated our tourist industry. Sadly, the hotel infrastructure has suffered from inadequate maintenance and for the past few tourist seasons, the hotel has seen very little, if any, commercial activity. 
But this past Saturday, December 4th, Fajara Hotel shed the social and commercial profile for which it used to be so well known; and for that one important national day, it took on a much more civic persona by hosting one of the Independent Electoral Commission‘s (IEC) polling centers in the constituency of Bakau.

I know this because I was there on Saturday morning exercising my democratic right to have a say as to who would be leading this country for the next five years. For me personally, it was something of a seminal event because I had the special pleasure and privilege of accompanying my partially-sighted mother who was just a month away from her 93rd birthday, to vote. 
These days when my mother is out in public, she walks with a cane to give her added stability. And I was pleased to see that as soon as she alighted from the vehicle with her cane, the solicitous IEC attendants immediately ushered her to the front of the queue and registered her with all the respect and decorum she could have asked for. And when we explained that my mother was visually handicapped, they made arrangements for me to accompany her into the booth so that I could assist her with the voting.

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To have had such treatment one day after the International Day of People with Disabilities (IDPWD) and three months after the International Day of Older Persons (IDOP), was indeed a most gratifying and encouraging experience. And let us face it, it is not every day that a 63-year-old man has the opportunity to vote in a presidential election together with his 93-year-old mother.
Our election day experience was not an isolated one. All the dispatches from the West Coast Radio reporters from various polling centers in the Greater Banjul area, confirmed that similar arrangements were in place elsewhere for older persons and persons with disabilities. For this alone, the IEC needs to be applauded.

But as I reflect on our election day experience through an ageing lens, there are a few interesting statistics. Of course, the first observation to make is that, as happens all too often in The Gambia, there are really not enough statistics to allow anyone to tell a compelling story about the different age groups, especially the cohort of older persons. I cannot even tell you how many other 90-year olds voted on that day, although I suspect there were very few.

What I can tell you is that all six presidential candidates ranged between the ages of 52 and 73, despite the minimum age limit of 30, with an average age of 60. This suggests to me that there really need not be and should not be any age limits, least of all any upper age limit which is something that was recently under consideration. That is just the sort of ageism we need to move away from. After all, people will only ever support and vote for a very old or a very young candidate if they feel they have both the energy and maturity, as well as a host of exceptional leadership qualities required, to do the job well.

Not surprising in this very youthful country of ours, another notable statistic is that 58% of the registered voters were in the 18-35 age bracket. Meanwhile, those over the age of 55 represented less than 4% of all registered voters which contrasts with the 6-7% of the population at large, (including those under 18 who are not eligible to vote), that this age cohort represents. While that statistic on its own may not tell us much, all things being equal, one would have expected there to have been many more older persons over the age of 55 in the pool of registered voters.

But as we know all too well, things are hardly ever equal.

Firstly, as we were voting on the day after the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Let us remember that globally, an estimated 46% of older people aged 60 years and over and that’s almost half of the population, are people with disabilities.

And secondly, while the polling center officials at Fajara Hotel gave my mother and me a very pleasant voting experience, I must not forget that the only reason we had such an experience, despite my mother’s age and visual disability, was that we had a private vehicle and a driver which allowed us to get there in the first place. Not every older person or person with a disability would have had that privilege on election day.

Let us also remember that the challenge of voting starts well before voting day. First you have to register to vote, and to register you need to have the right identity documents. And to get those documents you need to run around in and out various offices, all of which would require an older person with any kind of physical disability, to have assistance and support.

The IEC has clearly done their bit and they have shown us that if you are an older person or a person with a disability, they will take very good care of you once you get to their polling centre. But in the immortal words of ‘Wollof’: “bala nganeh naam, neh fa”. In other words, you need to get there first. And that is bound to be the tricky part for so many.

So the rest of us should follow the IEC’s fine example and do our part to ensure that the long and tortuous road that older persons and those with disabilities have to travel before they can get to the polling centre, is made smoother and simpler. Perhaps we can all work on that together before the next elections?

Sola Mahoney

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