Being an Elder in Nigeria and America

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Moses Ebe Ochonu

Nov 21, 2022, 1:08:19 PM11/21/22
to USAAfricaDialogue
[This is a Facebook update I made today]

If you are away from Nigeria/Africa long enough and you begin to age, the contrast between your diasporic abode and your natal country begins to appear to you in very sharp relief.
It's a well-known stereotype that we Africans are family oriented and that we respect elders.
The stereotype is of course largely true. It is even truer in the village, where the ethos of elder privilege still exists largely undisturbed by republican modernist pretensions.
As a child I spent time almost yearly in the village visiting with my family during festivities.
When I completed secondary school, I spent about a year in the village.
One remarkable and memorable thing for me about life in the village was how no elder, man or woman, was allowed to carry their load (yam, firewood, cassava, other crop harvests, farm tools, or hunting kills) past a group of young people once they crossed from the bush to the village.
When an elder emerged into view heading to their home with a load on their head, several onlooking young people would simultaneously scramble and rush to relieve the older person of the load.
The first person to get to the elder would delightedly take the load from the elder as if they had won a contest and happily complete the journey to the person's home. It did not matter if the elder was only a few feet from their home. It was sacrilege to not help them carry their load to their home.
The elder would first make a small show of refusing the gesture before expectedly, "reluctantly" succumbing. It was, in a way, choreographed social theater, but that didn't take away from its delightful social signification.
The young person would get to the home of the elder, set the load down and walk away with a sense that they had satisfied a cultural obligation.
I was an eager, enthusiastic participant in this practice every time I was in the village. I remember how I would sometimes outrun my peers to get to a load-bearing elder first. I remember how I would sometimes intentionally position myself in the villagsquare's long bench called akpa so that I would be the first to see any elder returning from the farm.
It gave me--us--so much joy to help the elders with their loads. The elders, we knew, had done the same for their own elders when they were young.
No one compelled compliance. We loved doing it. It was beautiful, even if a bit ritualized, since sometimes one was literally walking with the load only 200 feet to the elder's home. The elders would always oblige even if they were almost at their doorstep.
It was a kind of social event, enacted daily between the young and the old. It made the old feel valued, respected, and honored. It made the young feel valuable and a part of a cultural system of symbiosis, co-dependence, and mutual care.
For several years, I kept returning to this experience, one of my fondest memories of aspects of village life in which I participated.
Contrast this with America.
Elders enjoy little cultural deference, and it breaks my heart when I see it.
In Nigeria, when there's a long queue and an elder appears, they're ushered to the front of the line. They're encouraged to cut in line. That's why we allow elders to skirt election queues and vote before younger folk.
In America, unless they have an obvious disability, no such courtesy is extended to older people. How many times have I wanted to scold my American friends in a line for allowing a weak elder start from the back of a long line.
I didn't want to disrupt America's social convention or get myself in trouble as no one had appointed me a line monitor or enforcer of elder respect in a foreign land. So I would restrain myself and swallow the bitter disappointment.
And it's not just young Americans who buy into the age-neutral social republicanism of America either. Even the elders themselves are comfortable with it and celebrate it.
I remember when I lived in Michigan and was close to a Nigerian family there. The matriarch of the family, Ms. Ngozi saw their retired, weak, elderly neighbor repeatedly struggle to move groceries from her car to her home.
One day, she couldn't take it anymore and ordered one of her sons to go and help the elderly neighbor move her groceries to her home.
When the boy approached her and announced his mission, she flatly refused and said she was fine doing it by herself.
Ngozi, who was watching the encounter through their window, went out and intervened, carefully explaining to the elder that it had been grating her conscience to see her struggle with simple chores when she had teenage children next door who could quite easily help her with them.
She added, perhaps to convince the elder, that in Africa this was a taboo and that to refuse such help was offensive to the young person offering it.
It worked, and the elder relented and allowed the boy to help her.
Another time, the old woman was shoveling snow from her doorstep and Ngozi ordered one of her children to go and help. The neighbor this time didn't refuse outright but asked how much the child wanted to be paid. The child said there was no payment involved and Ngozi, again, had to plead with the elder to accept the help.
America is a heavily transactional country, and age does not intrude into or alter this fundamental fact of American social and quotidian relations. That's why the neighbor wanted to pay the young boy as most people in most neighborhoods do when young neighborhood kids help them shovel snow or do other chores.
There's nothing wrong, in and of itself, with a transactional ethos in social relations. Perhaps even the act of relieving the village elder of their farm load is also transactional in its own way. It's just not a transaction based on the exchange of money.
It's a transaction based on the belief that by being a good, responsible, young member of your village, ethnicity, and community, you'll reap the rewards that the blessings of elders confer, and that, when it's your turn, you'll benefit from the same gesture. It's a kind of social savings account I guess, one that you'll draw from when you get old.
Even so, the older I get, the more I appreciate our tradition of extending unconditional courtesy to elders. It's one of the things that America will never give us diaspora Nigerians/Africans and that we miss about our original home.
It's one of the reasons I increasingly hear fellow diasporans above and within my age bracket speak passionately about not retiring in America but in Africa.

Toyin Falola

Nov 21, 2022, 1:25:12 PM11/21/22


I did a full-blown essay on this, “Eldertocracy” as a belief system in a recent book.

To those who study democracy, they tend to forget that the units of politics and governance are so many in Africa, and they are not dead. Community leadership operates outside of the formal sector. In a fieldwork in the Sahel, we saw clear evidence of the use of older institutions to govern society. Even as big as Nigeria is, it is under policed. There are hundreds of villages without police, and they function.

Those units should be revived and used, as they are outside of the corruption networks.

There are abuses, as you now have migrant-driven citizens who will call a US professor, fronting as a mentor, as Baba or Ba’mi, a very manipulative relationship.

Two days ago, in the company of Professor Dele Ashiru, Dr. Raji, and another friend, we were sent packing at Onigbongbo in Lagos, when the town crier, whom I have not heard for decades, went about saying “all must vacate the town as the Oba wants to make sacrifices,” which is called Oro. By 9.30, everyone left and the entire place, extremely dense, was vacated. I am not talking about a village in the hinterland but in Lagos. I can walk from this place to the house of Lai Mohammed, the Minister of Information.

Data like this are needed to rethink the political system. And we must begin to separate the woes of democracy from our capacity to invent units to deliver governance.


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Oluwatoyin Adepoju

Nov 21, 2022, 1:25:12 PM11/21/22


Nkolika Ebele

Nov 21, 2022, 3:24:04 PM11/21/22
to, Moses Ebe Ochonu, USAAfricaDialogue

Unfortunately this practice that you enjoyed then in Nigeria is fast getting eroded. Young ones today only offer to help if you will pay for it, otherwise you are left to struggle with your load. They will rather record you for their social media post than offer help. A lot has changed. Nkolika Obianyo  


Harrow, Kenneth

Nov 22, 2022, 12:52:30 AM11/22/22
to USAAfricaDialogue
this is a beautiful essay by moses on the contrast between western/u.s.a. attitudes towardsthe elderly and those in africa.
although these are well-known perception, they give one side to the issue. i am not a researcher in the area, just an old guy whose experiences speak to the issues.

first, my family surrounds me, especially in need. i could cite many many cases where this is true. there is also the opposite: families become disperse, children go off to the other ends of the earth, and don't always keep in touch. my own family and extended family, however, is that family still matters more than almost anything in the lives of most people i know. most people i know care more about their children than almost anything else, and often make large sacrifices of time or money for them. most people i know celebrate family at christmas or pesach or other holidays, like thanksgiving now coming up when a very large number of americans will travel to be with family.
being with your family in a village or small town is probably different from the experience in the large city, and in both africa and the u.s. that difference is real. i can't speak for both cultures. who could? the u.s. has a zillion different ethnicities and family experiences, as is true in africa. i do agree that the tightness of the family ties are loosened as people move apart, and don't always keep up. but the absoluteness of the line between the u.s. and africa strikes me as not quite accurate, and i'd ask about what life in the cities has meant in both locations.

as an old man, an elder, almost 80, my experiences here and in africa also don't always align with the example moses, though much of what he wrote resonates with me.
the last time i traveled in nigeria, maybe 5-6 years ago, my hair had already turned grey/white, and people deferred to me quite a bit. at times making me feel uncomfortable. for a very long time i've been able to accept the deference toward me as older in africa, something i do not expect here at home.
yet i get that deference here at home a lot. i've been helped by neighor children, without asking. once i arrived late a night; the driveway was full; we had driven a long way to get home. i took out a shovel, and 2 minutes later jeff and tama's son kimani was there helping. i appreciated it so much,.
when someone gets up in public transport for me to sit down, at times it has felt as though my age is an unnecessary burden imposed on others to help me, even when i don't ask for or need the help. i can imagine young people feeling that way, too. but i would say anyone who has taken public transport in this country, especially buses, with not rich people and older people, would not be surprised to see younger or middle aged people giving up their seat. i see that all the time, here and frequently in france as well. at times we, the old ones, feel the weight of agism where we are regarded not only a physically infirm, but  mentally too.
when we lived in dakar, and the cars rapides came and people piled in, people who did not know each other, who did not come from the same village, it was very rare to see younger people accommodating the elderly by letting them board first. once on board a bus, more respect might be shown, but not always. when we traveled with our babies, often a seated passenger might take the baby we were holding, and we loved that. now that we're old, it is common to receive the same kind of treatment of consideration.

if it were in a crowded subway in nyc, maybe it would not be like that. i'm uncertain. and i don't doubt moses's word when he states he's been dismayed by the ways he's seen elders treated. the real dismay comes with old age homes and the need for money to be housed decently and treated well medically, which many old people lack.
but if we are to compare societies, instead of an african village versus and american city, i'd ask how an african city holds up to these values? i've just seen a number of films detailing how the elderly are often accused of being witches so that their children, grown up themselves, might get hold of their land. so many films now deal with these false accusations of witchcraft.

moses shows us the beautiful side of african social values. i hope he might see some of that here in the states as well some time.

kenneth harrow

professor emeritus

dept of english

michigan state university

517 803-8839

Sent: Sunday, November 20, 2022 5:55 PM
To: USAAfricaDialogue <>

Subject: USA Africa Dialogue Series - Being an Elder in Nigeria and America

Michael Afolayan

Nov 22, 2022, 6:20:15 AM11/22/22
to USAAfricaDialogue

AS always, you did well! Thanks for writing this. A recapitulation of aspects of our cultural gallantries is worthy of note. I had always thought this was only practiced among the Yoruba. I am pleased to learn that it is an African thing - for the most part. I am sure not all societies in Africa uphold this sacred practice. In fact, I am aware of some culture where this would be considered a misnormal.

My own concern is that these great practices are seriously endangered in a cultural environment where making money is valued over and above doing the right thing, and altruism has become a thing of the distant past. The practice you romanticized here is the same in which I grew up. But, alas, (and sadly), this is fading, and fading fast. Respect for elders is a culture that is decreasing at an increasing rate. I recall having to tell my young helper that I was ashamed to have to tell him to take the bag I was carrying in my hand while we were walking together at a nearby marketplace. It was a teachable moment, where I had to give him a fairly long lecture. Mind you, this is a young man that I sponsored though a polytechnic degree and continue to support even up until now. It underscores the degree of endangerment of our sacred traditions.

A great American sociologist and teacher of mine, Bert Adams, lamented many times how much he wished those African ethos could be replicated on the American shores. He lived in Uganda for many years and was good friend of the famous long distance runner, Kip Keino. Unfortunately, cultural relativity has taught us that there is a redeeming quality in a culture that only the adherents of that culture can appreciate, no matter how bad it looks in the eye of the foreign observer. I would never expect an American student of mine to run across the street so as to help me carry my bag of books, even if it's to teach in his or her class. Would I say this is wrong? Not really, but I could say this is sad. I had a colleague who had physical disabilities. There was not a single time I approached to help her carry her load of materials that she ever accepted. When I arrived in the US, there were countless times I rushed to carry the suitcase of my professor, John Blassingame, he flatly refused each time. A funny man that he was, John once told me that for an American, someone trying to take your suitcase from you is presumed to be a robber.

Anyway, I appreciate this write-up. I may have to frequent your FB pages if you provide such nuggets of wisdom on cultural matters.



Oluwatoyin Adepoju

Nov 22, 2022, 6:20:15 AM11/22/22
I’m particularly struck by the reference to accusations of witchcraft.

A serious African problem 

Cornelius Hamelberg

Nov 22, 2022, 2:16:35 PM11/22/22
to USA Africa Dialogue Series

“He misses home and his boots are sore.

He has not got no roots no more,” (JT :  Rock and Roll is Music Now)

Some of the time, that’s what life is like, living in a concrete jungle, far away from home. As they look back with some nostalgia, what Africans (especially) are usually complaining about or lamenting is that out here and there in the Wild Industrialised West, be it the US, the EU, the UK, things are not like the way we used to experience life back home in tropical Africa. No fresh palm wine to be guzzled down directly from the tapper’s gourd, they don’t even say, “ age before beauty” as a courtesy, and life has to go on in the crucible, sometimes, almost as bad as Marlowe’s “ The Crucible” but no matter how much he , she, we, they complain, thank God it’s not about life being extinguished in a Holocaust oven, with the so-called “systemic racism” embedded in the new & foreign structure of a still nonetheless hierarchically formed society, you name it, with or without capital letters, Negrophobia, Xenophobia, Islamophobia, Homophobia - a man kissing and cuddling another man, his fellow man and about to do it  - the main thing - put it in,  in broad daylight, right there in front of everybody, no respect for elders, and not surprisingly in e.g. Nigeria , just as the poet chimed, 

"The old order changeth, yielding place to new,

And God fulfils Himself in many ways,

Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.” 

That said, just check this out : Atiku on LGBT…so much hypocrisy 

What's the difference between Russia and Iran ? 

Whereas in Iran it’s sit-ins, riots, mass demonstrations being fanned about hijab, in Russia it was Pussy Riot

Hopefully, you intuit a difference. 

Pussy Riot in Iran? God forbid. 

Adab, please! 

Concerning the theme on this topic, as far as scriptural homilies go there’s Devarim 5:16 which is all about “Honour thy mother and father that thy life may be long “ - and who is it that doesn’t want a life-extension? More fully stated, it’s 

Honour your father and your mother as the Lord your God commanded you, in order that your days be lengthened, and that it may go well with you on the land that the Lord, your God, is giving you.

For some decades now, long before we became honorary elders, my revolutionary Gambian Bro Koro Sallah was forever pestering me, among others, about the necessity of establishing “ The Council of Elders”, to mentor and monitor the youngsters, to give them foundations, a new orientation, the necessary political and cultural motivations, and the necessary (Pan-African?) sense of direction. Do I myself have the required “ sense of direction” in my own personal life and community relations, locally and with the world-wide diaspora? As you can imagine, a lot of prestige, authority and some privileges are to be attached to the august members of such a council, but what a responsibility! 

Perhaps, a very urgent necessity these days, to help curb the other pandemic taking over Sweden, known as gang criminality, although that has not yet reached  Nigeria’s epidemic or epic proportions of what's' known as “ ransom kidnappings”

In Sweden where the elders of all nations still survive and thrive , I think that first and foremost, African elders are most grateful about the HealthCare system over here, really second to none, and where people no matter at what age, expect and receive fair treatment - after the age of 85 medicines are free and elders are not expected to even pay a nominal fee for whatever treatment. Of course , inevitably some time after 85, it’s the cemetery….

I believe that in the absence of living in the bosom of the African nuclear or extended family, in Sweden, the greatest fear is the prospect of having to move into  or being  moved into an “ Old People's Home”. Some years ago, at the age of 90,  and for each and every Sabbath, still baking his own challah my best friend, a Lithuanian Jew, born and bred in Harbin, which is in China, got married to a 52-year old  - among other reasons, I suspect because he didn’t much relish the idea of moving into or being moved into an Old People’s home, even an old people’s home for Old Jewish People, with kosher food etc - I say , “ I suspect”  -  I don't know - although I was his confidant , all he told me ( so many times) was that he was “ in love with her”.  

The last time I visited  another old friend - a Christian Sikh, Mr. Samson moved  himself into an expensive high-class old people’s home, good wine served with dinner ( he had worked hard most of his live and wanted to enjoy some of the fruits of his fat pension during his last days down here on earth)  he was complaining to me , rather boastfully that he felt like the champion fighting cock among all the old ladies there and that not only were they fighting over him, but that one of them  - another old lady’s rival was trying to poison him, out of jealousy… 

All the world's a stage, true, and The Seven Ages of Man - and woman - is universal , and it’s not an old wives tale that when he was 80 - eighty years old  the Prophet Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt on a 40 years Golgotha rampage/ jamboree through the wilderness; that’s why it’s stunning what Ken ( may he attain to the ripe old age of 120) is now saying about approaching that landmark as an old man, an elder, almost 80” he crows. We , yes, we should all like to miraculously return, regress from geriatrics and gerontology back to the roaring 20s wouldn’t we? Well you start realising that you’re getting on in years when every once in a while someone offers you a seat in the local transport 

Some twenty years ago I saw  Tickets and Ties by Femi Jr Elufowoju performed here at Södra Teatern in Stockholm, with an all-West African cast. A great performance - I’ve talked about it previously, here. The play mirrored a reality that has surely only got worse with time, namely the generation gap, and when it comes to that  ( the generation gap) things can only get progressively worse, as  in desperation the oldies in the councils of elders cling  on to their/ our ancient traditions; and  this kind of widening cultural gap doesn’t only affect Africans  you know, ask  me - way back in the day I ask my son, “ When are you going to find yourself a nice Yoruba woman and settle down?” etc etc etc  - he tells me, “ We’re not in Africa”.  Ask some of the good people from e.g. Bangladesh,  the poor guy goes home ( to Dhaka and marries a one of his own kind and brings her to Sweden; within months, after the basic cultural revaluation and indoctrination that occurs during her Swedish for foreigners lessons,  in no time at all she could be going out for the night or the evening  - “a night out with the girls'' she tells her helpless husband and returns way past midnight reeking of some haram al-cohol. Now tell me which , honourable MUlsim dude is going to accept that  - of course not, from his side  he puts his foot down, puts a final stop  to the nonsense,  tells her: “ No more gallivanting!!!  No more nights out with the girls !!!!! ”

 It’s getting kinda long and I haven’t even started yet , just warming up , but I’ll stop myself here…

Cornelius Hamelberg

Nov 22, 2022, 2:16:43 PM11/22/22
to USA Africa Dialogue Series

Re  - I remember how I would sometimes outrun my peers to get to a load-bearing elder first.” ( Moses Ochonu Remembers) 

“Well, the moral of the story

The moral of this song

Is simply that one should never be

Where one does not belong

So when you see your neighbor carrying somethin'

Help him with his load

And don't go mistaking Paradise

For that home across the road” (Bob Dylan :  The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest)

I try to imagine the culture shock for e.g. a modern day  Kant who never left his niche, or someone coming straight from a little village in Africa where everybody is brother and sister, all the way to “the Big Apple”, the  impersonality of the one and only  New York City,  feeling  small, quite lonely and lost , certainly not that much at home over there among the skyscrapers where a man has to look up to see the sky…

I suppose that cosmopolitan life/ city civilisation/ living in a big city anywhere in the West means that one is really living in the midst of strangers who are equally and impersonally anonymous to each other /one another, so that there’s no longer the the same feeling as of communal/ community spirit as in the closely knit , parochial, old time religion  “ love thy neighbour as thyself”,  one-horse-town or  village mentality - since in the city it’s more of do or die, every man for himself,survival of the fittest…

City’s just a jungle, more games to play

Trapped in the heart of it, trying to get away

I was raised in the country, I been workin’ in the town

I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down” ( Bob Dylan : Mississippi

Harrow, Kenneth

Nov 22, 2022, 2:33:21 PM11/22/22
in response to cornelius's picture, or dylan's, of the big city.
it is true many people live along, or maybe unencumbered, in big cities.
my son lived in a neighborhood in chicago; couldn't walk his dog around theblock without bumping into people he knew, even if slightly, and would greet. there were neighbors who formed friendships; others just hellos. it was never an isolated world, but that was in Ukrainian village, a nice neighborhood.
his older brother lived in Stuyvescant Town, the lower east side of nyc. a huge complex. there he raised two kids. when we visited, after they got home from school they played in the courtyard with their friends, and lots of nannies. when my son and his wife got back from work, if weather was good, we'd do a dinner in the courtyard while kids played. there were always many friends around, a real community.
the same for my third son who lives in cambridge mass; the neighborhood with kids, lots and lots of outings with friends, especially in the playground.

the city is not empty. anyone who lived in new york for any real space of time knows the notion of a cold, empty, soulless environment was just the outsiders' view.

kenneth harrow

professor emeritus

dept of english

michigan state university

517 803-8839

From: <> on behalf of Cornelius Hamelberg <>
Sent: Tuesday, November 22, 2022 12:49 PM
To: USA Africa Dialogue Series <>
Subject: Re: USA Africa Dialogue Series - Being an Elder in Nigeria and America

Olasupo Laosebikan

Nov 23, 2022, 12:00:12 AM11/23/22
  Who is a child? See 15-year-old Greta Thunberg's scathing speech to her "Elders," World Leaders no less, at the UN ( -thunberg-delivers-scathing-speech-u-n-n1057621)
 Who is a child? The “children” of Soweto fighting apartheid, the Children of the CRM fighting for equal rights,  the Children of Parkland, Fl who would rather America not be awash in guns….”They're no children here” One is not an Adult because one's hair is as white as snow One is an adult when one acts like it! 

Here is my essay on the subject: Childhood and Adulthood; these are Moral categories, Moral captions. 

"Age?" What Age? Whose Age? What has Age to do with it? What indeed is Age? 

Childhood is lifelong; The child is alive and well in every adult. And is the adult also, not alive and kicking in every child?

 (A quiz. As he faced Goliath, was David the young shepherd boy young when he stood up to Goliath?) 

Life gives Life to Life; what then does this make every birth? 

Every coming, a returning; every birth/rebirth/renewal.

 Life gives Life to Life; how old then is Life, any Life, every Life? 

Every Life the age of Life, Every Life as old as Life it is 

"New"? What new, newborn, new Life? What is new in "new?" What is born newly, born a-new but the old? (B’ogede ba ku a fi omo re ropo.) It is not for nothing that we call our "Children"; Babatunde! (Father returns) Yetunde !! Yewande (Mother is back)!!! Our ancestors are our heirs. (Our Future is also our past). 

What is age? How old the babe-in-arms? How old is Life at this or that Coming/Returning/Rebirth/Renewal? 

The hungry 12-year-old, who, given a loaf saves half for a starving Big Sister, well, that's being the Adult. Just as forgiving is the elder of vengeance, love the elder of hate, ....

”They're no children here” One is not an Adult because one's hair is as white as snow. One is an adult when one acts like it! 

olasupo laosebikan

Cornelius Hamelberg

Nov 23, 2022, 12:01:01 AM11/23/22
to USA Africa Dialogue Series
 Dear Don Harrow,

An absolute outsiders' view, 

like an  Extra-Terrestrial true. 

Thanks for the big picture, 

I was just imagining the initial culture shock for someone coming directly from a little African village to that awesome big city. I guess the Nigerian Embassy should be a good place to help a Nigerian get some orientation. 

(The first time I went to the Synagogue library in Stockholm I met a man called Theodore Katz who asked me, “ Who do you know?” That weekend I was at Sonya’s, and there was literally everybody - including my aforementioned best friend from Lithuania by way of Harbin, China. A week later I was dancing at the Israeli Ambassador’s birthday party, at the Embassy - it was like the beginning of Auguries of Innocence

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

And Eternity in an hour”

Have been made to understand that at Central Park there's not that much mixing either, the Puerto Ricans have their corner…

 I’m also made to understand that when one gets to a big town, new city such as Amsterdam, one should get in touch with some relevant segments of the artistic community , maybe start with a hot momma ( not a heart murmur) - in a place like Port Harcourt, to be on the sade side  it would of course be best to be good friends with the Commissioner Police and some of the dudes in the Mobile Police, the governors, senators, judges, chiefs can come later.

The border guards asked Nina, do you have any contacts in Sierra Leone, and she told them, yes. Who? She told me that she told them, “ Dr. Dynamite “ just as I had told her, and they burst out in laughter…

 As the Osagyefo said, “ Seek ye first the political kingdom and all things shall be added unto you," - except for that thieving Bank Manager , a devil in disguise, himself worse than a bank robber…

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