The word ‘retirement’ began to make inroads into many Cameroonian homes in the nineteen eighties when the Cameroonian civil service began to lay off government workers in great numbers. First, it came as a trickle in the eighties, and then the flood followed in the nineties. Suddenly, life-time employment, that had hitherto been the most attractive aspect of the Cameroonian civil service, came tumbling down. Words like ‘early retirement,’ ‘anticipated retirement’, ‘forced retirement,’ began to torment the minds of many a civil servant, especially as the civil service did not seem to have taken neither the time, nor the pains, to prepare its workers for this crucial period of their lives. In certain cases, retirees were not even given prior notification before being sent on retirement. So retirement became synonymous with humiliation.
A good case in point is that of a military officer, all spruced up in his military attire, with medals shining and dangling from his chests, who was seen and heard shedding tears and wailing in a loud and hoarse voice in a bank in Bonanjo, Douala. He came to retrieve money from his account only to be told that it was empty. In usual military style, he threatened to blast off the head of the cashier, if his money was not paid at once. The cashier, trembling for her life, gave him a copy of the details of his account and it was only then that the poor fellow realized to his horror that he had been retired a month earlier. The bank statement bore a series of zeroes on the line where there should have been an amount corresponding to whatever his monthly wage was. Even though the sight of a puffy military officer shedding tears in public, and impotently brandishing a piece of paper in his hand, did spark some unprintable comments from the public about the worth, or the lack thereof, of our military forces, his plight was not an isolated case then. Many other retirees also learnt that they no longer had a job only when they picked up their pay-slips from the banks.
The bottle and the free woman
To people, like our military officer, retirement became a source of terror, which led to many premature and unnecessary deaths among the retirees. Retirement became a dreaded topic and the mere mention of it in certain circles always brought a hostile response from people around. Many began to consider retirement as an indication that they had outlived their usefulness and were only waiting to see the inside lining of a coffin.
Some, believing they would soon pass onto eternity, decided that retirement for them spelt a period of continual relaxation, where all they had to do was lounge on a rocking chair all day long, their toes facing the sky, waiting for evening and for death, and making life unbearable for their spouses and kids. As we all know, the worst enemy of a retiree is too much free time. A retiree with too much free time usually heads for the nearest bar where the alluring arms of free women are always waiting to empty his pockets of the remnants of his retirement benefits. The free woman and the bottle form a deadly combination for a retiree and his family. What such a retiree gets in pension usually ends up on the laps of whoredom, causing an untold amount of agony in his home, where his wife and kids are left to feign for themselves.
Change in civil service attitude
The Cameroonian civil service did, mercifully, recognize its mistake and began to notify candidates for retirement several months ahead of time. This was a salutary way of psychologically preparing future retirees to accept retirement for what it is, that is, a normal period of rest after several years of useful employment. Being notified well ahead of time gave those who were wise enough time to explore future ventures that would keep them busy during retirement. Some had enough time to look for and transition to other jobs; others joined community groups or volunteered their time for useful causes, while others became self-employed.
Many retirees began to see retirement as an opportunity to do what they had always wanted to do but had not had the time, or the chance, while they worked for someone else. Some retirees began to travel. We know a couple who visited Senegal and came back with heart-rending stories of their visit to the slave fort of Gorée, off the coast of Dakar. Some even decided to enhance their knowledge by enrolling in a higher school of learning, or university, or in one of the schools of theology our Catholic bishops are opening in their respective dioceses.
Now, let’s get personal
After all these general statements about retirement, let me become more personal and tell you how I am living my retirement. I don’t claim it as the ideal way to live one’s retirement but it has worked out well for me so far. We are all different and what works out well for one person may not necessarily work out well for the other. That notwithstanding, there’s no harm sharing our experiences.
I worked for over 20 years for a multi-national corporation, first as a translator and interpreter for over ten years before being promoted and trained in personnel management. I handled staff issues and got to know much about employees and their families, sometimes at very emotional and private levels. That is when I learnt a few things about Cameroonians, in particular, and Africans, in general.
First of all, I learnt that few Cameroonians ever involve their spouses in their financial dealings. For example, how many of you reading this article ever tell your spouses how much you earn a month? I would dare say just a few! But each time you hide your salary from your spouse, you add concrete to a deep foundation of distrust now and for the future. The consequences of hiding your salary from your spouse always tends to haunt you into your retirement days. I have seen it happen to many of my fellow retirees.
I remember a spouse of one of the employees I worked with who came in tears, kicking and screaming and threatening to take us to court, if we did not tell her how much her husband was earning each month. Of course, we were not legally allowed to do so but we later advised her husband to be open to her spouse, but he merely waved us away. And this woman’s case was hardly the only one. It was always unfortunate to see the unity of many families break up over salary issues.
Today, some of the people I worked with, and who, like me, are also on retirement, continue to experience the anguish of family disunity because many of them hid, and still hide, their financial transactions from their spouses. The rebellious spouses have made life hell for them on earth and many retirees do not have good stories to tell of retirement. Many have literally been hounded to an early death by their spouses and children, who believe they are hiding pots of money from them, even when there are none.
Why I don’t hide money from my spouse.
After observing the havoc caused in families by financial secrecy, I resolved to do just the opposite. I decided I would no longer hide the details of my salary from my better half. Like everyone else, I had begun work with the feeling that my pay cheque was my business alone. I didn’t think my wife had any say in it. However, after carefully observing what harm financial secrecy was causing in the homes of my fellow workers, I quickly changed my mind and let my wife in on all my monetary matters; and an amazing thing began to happen. Money began to gradually lose its imperative and imposing grip on my family. Openness in financial matters deflated and weakened the power of money had over me to the benefit of my family. Why? It is simply because money no longer held center stage in my home. Not that it was no longer important, but it ceased to rule my family life. I successfully reduced money to the position of a slave that it is meant to be, not the master that it has become in several homes.
The other day I went back to my former employer to have a few documents signed for my pension. Personnel Department could not find some of my earlier pay slips with my salary details on them, and I told them I had them at home. The young man, who was attending to me, turned a puzzled look at me and asked: “Are you telling me you keep your pay slips at home?” When I asked why not, he reminded me that few employees ever let theirs anywhere within miles of their homes, for fear that their spouses might stumble on them and know how much they earn a month.
I knew exactly what he was saying because I had worked in that same office for a good part of my active life. I further shocked him by telling him that my wife had never taken the slightest interest in those pay slips even though they have lain in a drawer in our bedroom for years. “Why is that so?” he asked. It is simply because they were never hidden from her.
Some people tell me that my wife must be a different breed because theirs would not hesitate to pounce on their money and vamoose into thin air. I recall a presentation I made at a seminar for a group of potential retirees on how open one should be to one’s spouse in financial matters. One participant literally skipped to his feet and asked me to sit down and stop talking nonsense. “Who has ever heard of a man, with something dangling between his thighs, showing his wife his pay cheque?” he asked, and his less-than-polite remark drew loud acclaim of approval from those of like mind in the audience. He then concluded, to the general amusement and approval of some participants, that I must have been smoking something funny.
Replenish your ‘emotional bank accounts’.
Experience, however, shows that once you open up to your spouse on this, or other issues, you build a foundation of trust, and the chances that she would vanish with your money is quickly minimized. Why? Because she too starts to see the money you bring home as her family revenue, not just her husband’s alone. When you succeed to reduce money to the position of a slave, rather than a master, in your home, you and your spouse can then focus your attention on other important family issues that money can do for you. You increase your “emotional bank account”, a term I borrow from Stephen Covey, an American author of a monumental book entitled “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”.
You replenish your emotional bank account by a life of integrity; a life lived with respect for the feelings of your spouse and your kids, if you have any. Once your family knows that they can always count on you because your ‘yes’ is ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ is ‘no’, their trust and confidence in you increase. Such trust and confidence replenish your emotional bank account with your family. You are rewarded with a home where peace and harmony reign. Does this mean there would no longer be any disagreements with your spouse? Not at all; disagreements over one thing or the other are part of life. However, in a relationship where trust abounds and the “emotional bank account” is well replenished, win-win agreements are easily arrived at. These are agreements in which the interest of everyone, including the kids, is taken into account when a decision is being made that affects the whole family. No one feels left out, no one feels humiliated in any way because the trust level is very high. In this case, what looks at first like a dangerous disagreement quickly peters out when confronted with high trust in a family.
Let me conclude by reiterating what I have said so far. Retirement is definitely not a moment for fireworks of discontent to go off here and there in your life. Secrecy in monetary matters does just that; it sets fire to relationships and makes retirement a period in hell fire before the real one. Money more easily breaks the home than it builds, especially when it is ruled by distrust and suspicion from one party. But you can eliminate such stress by letting your partner know just how much money you have, or how much you have brought home as a retirement package. You would be surprised how much of an ally you can have in your wife, or husband, and how much peace of mind you would have in your retirement.
Don’t keep whatever you bring home as a retirement package under lock and key. Rather, be open with it and even if you both happen to invest in a venture that fizzles out, as many people’s life savings have recently gone up in smoke during the recent world’s financial crises, you would still have an understanding partner with whom you can start all over again. In everything, let your family pray together, plan together and your retirement would be a moment of peace and harmony spent with your family, not on your knees in a bar or in a gutter.
(First posted on November 25, 2009)