113 Years My Senior! Wait! How Old?

Trip Start Oct 17, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Nthanzi Lodge

Flag of Zambia  ,
Thursday, January 25, 2007

          My first impression of Abelesi Zulu upon entering her thatch roofed hut was that she didn't look as frail as I had pictured her to be. The only light coming in through the open door dimly lit the rest of the hut which was empty save for the mats and blankets that made up her bed. She was sitting next to a small fire eating nshima and beans and seemed to be taken by surprise at the visit. I had come with her grandson, Josab Changa, to see the oldest woman in Zambia. At 138 years old, she has lived close to two life times. She has been around to see the invention of things like electricity, radio, air travel etc... but has never benefitted from any of them. As can be best gathered by the village system of referring to specific events that occurred around the time of a birth or death; she is estimated to have been born sometime in August of 1868 in Katumba village in Petauke district. It is believed that she's never travelled far from there and in fact still lives in Petauke district but in Dominic village.

          Since my arrival here, my father had mentioned on occasion a very old woman who had known my great grandfather during his days as District Commissioner of Petauke District for the British Colonial Office back when the country was still called Northern Rhodesia. My father is greatly interested in the family tree as well as the lives of his grandparents.

          So it happened that I travelled out by bus to Petauke with Josab to interview Abelesi about what she could remember concerning my great grandparents. The distance to Petauke from Lusaka is about 350 kilometers with a travel time of about 5 hours. We planned on taking the 7 am bus so as to have the afternoon at the village to get the most time out of the 3 day journey. Unfortunately, the bus wasn't close to full by 7 so we waited for more passenger to buy tickets; in the end, we didn't get on the road until just after 10 so our hopes of getting there in good time where dashed. As usual, I crammed my legs into the seat for the trip as we drove out of the flatness of Lusaka province into the hills and valleys as one enters Eastern province.

          The road for the most part was in fair condition and we sailed over it passing many small villages and their thatched roof huts along the way. What small towns we did pass were hardly discernible as such as we stopped on the odd occasion to drop someone off or to pick someone up. We crossed the Luangwa River and on through the hills, winding our way along valleys with sheer drops of 100 plus meters or so where people have lost their lives in accidents as cars and trucks tumbled over the edge; either because of excessive speed, inattention or inebriation! We finally arrived in Petauke just after 3 in the afternoon and after getting some information about accommodations, took a taxi out to settle our luggage at Nthanzi Lodge before proceeding on to see the old lady.

          The village was about an hour away down a dirt road with many potholes and areas washed out by the abundance of rains this season. Changa was himself born in the same village when his mom returned for a visit, though grew up in the Copperbelt where his dad worked. Our arrival in the village was rather late in the day and I was introduced to Changa's brothers. (Brothers in the village sense is very different to the way it's seen in the west; village brothers and sister in this way are not just from ones parents but also from ones uncles. In this way, cousins, as we would call them are seen as ones brothers/sisters!) Just up from the brothers houses was Abelesi's hut.

          Her hut was very non-distinct from all the other huts with beige, circular walls and a diameter of about 3 meters. With no windows to provide any air circulation, it felt stuffy and smoke hung around, eventually percolating out through the thatch roof. We had brought her some supplies from town; not much but basic things such as cooking oil, detergent, soap and sugar! This first meeting was brief as it was already late in the day and in the hour or so that we were there she kept saying she thought it was a dream. She can no longer walk as her legs are too weak but gets around by crawling on all fours. Her teeth are all gone and her hearing is fading as well, however, she still has her eyesight and can talk up a storm though her memories fade in and out even when she's in mid-sentence! This first meeting was for introductions only and we promised to be back the next day!

          We had planned to get to the village in good time in the morning but after miscommunication with the taxi, didn't arrive until half past ten. Again, we met up with Changa's brothers first. Several other villagers had shown up to see the visitors as well as as about 15 or so children who had come to see the tall mazungu. After chatting again for a short while, we walked the short distance to see Abelesi. She was seated just outside her hut as it was a sunny day while several other relatives sat nearby. We set up our chairs opposite her and offered our greetings. She smiled and replied that she thought we had gone back to Lusaka; then she looked over at one of the younger children to order them to go get a chicken that she wanted to cook and to be served in my honour (this would be repeated several times during this second visit amid laughs from everyone around).

          So it was on this second day that we broached the subject of our visit. Abelesi Zulu was born in the same year as my great grandfather, Harry Scott Thornicroft. In his work for the Colonial office in eastern part of Northern Rhodesia, they met sometime around the early 1900's and Abelesi became friends with my great grandmother Achimvuwu. Dongolosi, as the local village population pronounced Thornicroft, was rather well liked for his kind attitude towards the many tribes of the area. So it was that she recalled as much as she could remember on this day. Stories like how Dongolosi built his house on the side of the mountain next to Katumba village; how all the villagers would gather round to hear the grammaphon or see some of the other strange mechanical devices; or that Dongolosi and family had food shipped in from Fort Jameson (now Chipata) and were the first to have things like granular sugar, tea and even fruits such as mangos, oranges, guavas and avocadoes. Stretching further back she recalled how her grandfather used to help arab slave traders by rounding up slaves in return for food, cloths and other items until he was one day killed in front of the family by the same slave traders intent upon taking him along with those who were captured.

          In her time, Abelesi has outlived many people. Her husband, Agripa Zulu, died in 1956 and 12 of her 15 children have since passed on as well. Her daughter Emily, who is herself 88 years old, takes care of her along with Changa's two brother, John and Lackson. Still, in the village Abelesi is seen as being too old; a predicament that is often associated with witchcraft. As such, some extended family had been plotting to help her along in exiting this world as she has 'over lived' as it was put to me.

          At 138 years old, Abelesi is the oldest living person ever; however, the problem exists that she has no birth certificate to authenticate her claim. Birth certificates didn't exist in Africa then and only really started to appear around the 1920's. In this situation, the Guiness Book of World Records won't recognize her until proof can be found. So the search is on to find some document or other with the best bet coming from the Dutch Reform Church for which she was baptized at the founding of said church here in Zambia. She has been recognized here in Zambia and two years ago appeared in The Daily Mail newspaper and on ZNBC TV in her 136th year. This publicity prompted the then government to action. The MP for Petauke Central, who as Deputy Minister for Community Development and Social Services, presented her with a wheelchair, 2 blankets, 2 dresses, a container of cooking oil and a promise to help care for Zambia's oldest resident. Sadly though, a promise is all it's ever been. In the following two years the government has offered more promises but done nothing. As well, the wheelchair was taken by the village headmen and the wheels removed and sold leaving her with the useless frame.

          Unfortunately, Changa's seems to be the only one of the hundred or so grandchildren and 200 or so great grandchildren that has taken any interest in the one they call Ambuya (Nyanga for grandmother). He was the one behind the article in the Daily Mail as he brought the reporter out to meet his grandmother. Now, we will try again to raise awareness of Abelesi's situation through the media and hopefully guilt the government into action. We will approach all the major daily newspapers as well as ZNBC again. With any luck, those promises will soon turn to action.
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darkstar on

Strong Work
Nicko! An excellent story, definitely your best yet. And great detail. When I was in Zambia there was talk of visiting the 'old lady' but it never panned out. Good on ya! David

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