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Retiring Gracefully 

By Martin Jumbam   

Some of us, who studied at the University of Yaoundé in the seventies, had the fortune to have sat at the feet of no greater a scholar than the venerable Professor Bernard Nsokika Fonlon, whom the Lord called to his eternal reward on August 26, 1986 in Canada, the land Professor Fonlon always considered his ‘second home’. Canada was the home of his friend, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, for long Canada’s Prime Minister. Anyone close to Dr. Fonlon knew how proud he always was about his relationship with Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau with whom he was on first name basis!  Both men must now be exchanging notes in Paradise.

Our venerable Master always urged us, in whatever we wrote, to always start by defining our terms. Definirum terminorum was always the Latin expression that rolled every so often with such fluidity off his tongue when a new literary concept dropped before us. We would then rush for our dictionaries and thesauri just to ensure that we knew the etymology, or the root, of the word to better relate it to the context.

So, when L’Effort Camerounais asked me to write something on retirement, I again heard my Master’s voice, in the ears of my mind, urging me to start by defining the term ‘retirement’. However, unlike my Master, I will not dig deep into the etymology, or the root, of that word for fear of venturing onto the slippery field of Latin or Greek that I do not master. I will rather talk about retirement in general terms by first saying what I believe it is not, or should not be. Secondly, I will say what I think it is, or should be, and then, on a more personal note, I will tell you how I live my retirement.

What Retirement Is Not

I believe the word retirement entered the vocabulary of many Cameroonian homes in the eighties in a very negative way when the Cameroonian civil service began to lay off government workers in great numbers. First, they 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 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 had just been told that his account was empty. In usual military style, he had 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 payslips 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 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 the 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 to useful causes, while others became self-employed. 

Many retirees began to see the opportunity retirement provided for them 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-renting 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 bishops are opening in their respective dioceses.

I often hear the Emeritus Archbishop of Douala, Christian Cardinal Tumi, praising retirees for the wonderful volunteer work they do in some parishes of his diocese. Many retirees, especially those with financial skills, are always eager to help priests, who are not afraid of financial transparency, with their finances – for free. The Cardinal always urges priests to take positive advantage of the presence of retirees in their parishes by letting them help put their parish accounts in order. Retirees, who volunteer their time for worthy causes in church or in civil society, always show unbelievable signs of vitality and proactivity in all they do. Their view of life is always steeply positive. To them, retirement is not the end but rather the beginning of another exciting and productive phase of their lives.

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 believe that preparing for retirement does not necessarily mean amassing liquid cash in banks, indispensable though the financial muscle of retirement definitely is! The recent financial crisis around the world has shown that liquid cash can sometimes evaporate in a matter of seconds, leaving you with a big hole in your bank account.  The recent spate of suicides around the world as a result of financial savings going up in smoke clearly shows just how volatile money can be.

Some say that one should start early to invest in real estate (landed property, houses, etc). While not down-playing the importance of money, of land and of houses as sources of revenue for the retiree, I firmly believe that a successful retirement lies more in strengthening and enhancing trusting family bonds than in money, land or houses. I can see the puzzled look in many eyes, but let me land first.

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.

Financial Secrecy In The Family

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.

The spouses of many of the employees I worked with came to ask the Personnel Department how much their spouses were making at the end of the month. Some came in tears, kicking and screaming and threatening to take us to court, if we did not tell them how much their husbands were earning each month. Of course, we were not legally allowed to do so but we always advised their husbands to be open to their spouses, but hardly any did. 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 are also, like me, out in the street, or running their own businesses, or have transitioned to other jobs, 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 payslip 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 grips and power on my family. I saw that openness in financial matters suddenly deflates and weakens the power of money over you and your family. Why? It is simply because money ceases to hold centre stage in your home. Not that it no longer matters, no, don’t hear that, but it ceases to rule your family life. You successfully reduce it to the 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.

They couldn’t find some of my earlier payslips 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 payslips at home?” I said yes and that I didn’t see what was so strange about it. He then reminded me of what I knew so well, that is, that few employees ever let their payslips anywhere within miles of their homes, for fear their spouses might find them and come to know how much their men earn a month. I knew exactly what he was saying having worked in that same office for a good part of my active life. I further shocked him by telling him my wife had never taken the slightest interest in those payslips 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. Once you keep them in the open, you let the light of Christ fall on them, and they cease to be a source of conflict because they are no longer kept in hiding. But, once you hide them, you keep them in darkness, and Satan, being the king of darkness, takes control; and where darkness reigns, Satan rules supreme. And that is why a spouse would do all in her power – including a secret trip to the home of a marabout – just to find those payslips or bank books, and when she doesn’t, she imagines that they must contain huge sums of money you don’t want her to see.
Am I over-generalizing to the point of trivializing such an important issue in life as money? That is the accusation I often get from some sources. Some people tell me that my wife must be different because theirs won’t hesitate to pounce on their money and vamoose with it into thin air. In a seminar I gave to a group of potential retirees, one of them categorically 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 payslip?" 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 will vanish into thin air 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, or hers 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 with delight 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 fires 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 distrust and suspicion when your partner knows just how much money you have, or how much you have brought home as a retirement package. You’ll be surprised how much of an ally you can have in your wife, or husband, and how much peace of mind you will have in your retirement.

Don’t keep whatever you bring home as a retirement package under lock and key from your spouse.  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 you will live your retirement in peace and harmony with your family, not on your knees in a bar or in a gutter.

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