American children can identify their own birthday almost as soon as they enter school. It is just one of those things we always know. During the process of interviewing I have seen how that isn’t true in rural Nigeria, especially among older folks. My subjects often don’t know their birthdays so they date themselves in relation to others, or to major social events. The most common referential event is the Biafran War or a violent conflict with a neighboring community. One woman said that at the start of the Biafran War (1967) she already had two children, which means she was probably born in the early 1950s since she probably started having children around 15 or so. Another woman said that she had not yet grown breasts at the start of the War, so she was probably around ten then. She added that she had yet to hide herself from men at that time. Her sister-in-law said that she herself was born on the day of Ogoni independence, which after some clarification came to mean Nigerian Independence on October 1, 1960. In general, most folks guess their age based on when they started or ended puberty in relation to a political event. Additionally, children are aged according to their siblings, so one’s age matters less than relative birth order in the family. People seem to be unconcerned with how old they are, so they don’t bother to think about it; it just isn’t really applicable to their lives. When I figured out some of my interview subjects’ birthdays to within a week or so based on surrounding events, most of them shrugged their shoulders because it just didn’t really matter to them.
In terms of gathering my field data, it is difficult for respondents to answer my questions about when an event, e.g. a conflict with a neighboring village, took place. We can usually guess events of the last two decades within a few years based on which President was in office and which children in the family had finished primary school. Calendars are a rarity. Ultimately, they are farmers. What matters is the start and end of rainy season, the week that they should plant and uproot, and when their cassava is ripe for harvesting. They keep track of days of the week in order to know market days to buy and sell their produce. For Igbos for instance, there are four days in the week and all are based on market trading. Dates don’t dictate their lives in the rural Delta. I have been wondering how the new ubiquity of cell phones might change this in the coming years, but I still have faith that as long as my respondents depend on agriculture for their livelihood, the crops will continue to decide what day it is.