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At 117, colonial-era chief Koinange’s widow Elizabeth Gathoni is full of life

With just the support of a black metallic staff, centenarian Elizabeth Gathoni saunters around her compound in Kiambaa, Kiambu County.

The only surviving widow of colonial-era chief Koinange wa Mbiyu, she is now 117 years old, making her one of the oldest people alive world over.

Ms Gathoni, who was born in 1900 according to her national identity card, is the fifth of the chief’s six wives.

At her age you would expect her mental faculties to have started waning but surprisingly, her memory is fine. So is her health.

The jovial woman, who is a staunch Christian, easily recalls the events of her youth, some that happened before Kenya attained independence.

HARDLY GETS SICK

She hardly gets sick and cannot recall the last time she saw a doctor, yet the vagaries of old age have caught up with some of her children.

Ms Gathoni has been lucky to see her sixth generation and according to Mr Leonard Koinange, her sixth born, she is able to identify all of them.

Though no one is able to tell her actual date of birth, Ms Gathoni said she was able to establish her year of birth through her age set which was named Kihiu Mwiri and which she shared with, among others, Founding President Jomo Kenyatta.

She has participated in all the elections Kenya has ever had and has seen the presidency change hands among the country’s four presidents, all of whom she has interacted with.

Every January, her family organise a birthday party for her to symbolise her crossing over to another year.

COVER STORY

Her story has been on the lips of many lately after the BBC featured her on its World Service radio last week. The story was aired on television on Saturday and a section of it airs on Sunday.

The architect of the story is 23-year-old Priscilla Ng’ethe, Ms Gathoni’s great granddaughter who is a London-based freelance journalist with BBC.

After winning a BBC story-telling challenge, the broadcaster assigned her a team to fly with her to Kenya to cover the story.

“I felt privileged that I got to work on my first documentary and base it on my inspiration, my great grandmother,” Ms Ng’ethe told the Nation.

The story of Ms Gathoni can be described as one of pain, struggle and resilience.

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She was born in Muchatha village in Banana, Kiambu County, and never went to school despite her father being wealthy.

GOING FOR DISCOS

Back then, she says, a girl would stay at home until she was of marriageable age. She remembers going for discos together with her age mates in the hope of getting suitors.

Most of her age mates got married at the age of between 20 and 25 but she delayed following her father’s death and also because she was among the young girls who used to entertain the “who is who” of that time.

“I was a good dancer and a mukui (a troupe leader), and any time there was a show, all the prominent people would refuse to rise until I took to the floor. This took much of my time,” Ms Gathoni said.

Her journey to marriage is an interesting one. Mr Koinange would visit their home to see her brother who had taken over their father’s role after his death.

Ms Gathoni, who reckons she was a beautiful girl, had an elder sister who was yet to be married. And according to Kikuyu customs, a woman would not be married off until all her elder sisters have found husbands.

HERD OF GOATS

For some reason, Ms Gathoni and her family were convinced that the chief had an interest in her elder sister.

In fact, she often tease her elder sister, telling her she would get married to an “old man”. The bald-headed chief was almost the same age as their father.

One day, young men drove a herd of goats to Ms Gathoni’s home, and this was a sign that the chief had chosen a woman in the homestead to be his wife. The following day, a marriage ceremony was to take place.

But on that night, Ms Gathoni’s elder sister escaped. This meant that the ceremony had to be cancelled and that the chief would have to collect his goats. But he said he would not collect them; that his interest was in Gathoni.

“He told my brother that it’s me he had interest in, despite the fact that I had never spoken to him, leave alone receiving a marriage proposal. But I had no choice. I think then we were very foolish because after few days, without a second thought, I was escorted out of my home,” she recalls.

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CROSSED RIVER

She added: “After we crossed a river towards the chief’s home, a representative of my family went back and I was left with him. We went to a church and at first I was shocked because I thought that was where he lived. I had not seen such a structure before. While inside, he knelt and prayed before we proceeded to his house.”

She got married in the Christmas season when most colonial chiefs married for the first time or acquired additional wives.

Ms Gathoni remembers that while most of the chiefs got just one wife, senior chief Waruhiu wa Kung’u from Githunguri married two.

Former First Lady Mama Ngina Kenyatta’s mother Nyokabi, who was married to chief Muhoho wa Gathecha, got married years after Ms Gathoni.

BORE SEVEN CHILDREN

After the quick turn of events, Ms Gathoni settled into her duties as a wife. She bore seven children. The eldest, a daughter, was born in 1932.

When the Mau Mau uprising gathered steam in the 1950s, Ms Gathoni and her husband sided with the armed resistance group despite the fact that they were both Christians.

Fighters used the Koinange home for secret meetings and administration of oaths. That saw Mr Koinange labelled a rebel who was sympathetic to Mau Mau despite having been given a job by the British.

Some of the fighters would sometimes sleep at the chief’s house. They would convert the meeting room into a bedroom by spreading dry banana leaves on the floor to act as mattresses. Jomo Kenyatta is among those who slept there, she says.

In 1952, Mr Kung’u was shot dead by unknown assailants. His murder marked the beginning of Ms Gathoni’s tribulations. Shortly after, her husband and two of her sons were arrested.

STATE OF EMERGENCY

They were, however, released after six months. Shortly after his release, Mr Koinange, some of his wives and children were arrested during the State of Emergency and detained for seven years.

As if her husband’s arrest was not enough, crops in two of Ms Gathoni’s farms at Kiambaa were destroyed and she could not access her third farm in Limuru since it was in another district. She required a permit to visit it.

“This reduced me to a beggar, and the people whom we previously considered poor were the ones who were assisting me,” she says.

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Considering that some of her co-wives were in detention, Ms Gathoni had to take care of all of Mr Koinange’s children.

“We used to boil unpeeled potatoes for food because it was not possible for me to peel potatoes enough to feed all those mouths. It was a difficult moment for me but I raised all them with love. And that’s why I find it foolish when people try to trigger war in the country,” says Ms Gathoni.

BIG NAME

After his release from detention in 1960, Mr Koinange was held at the chief’s office in Karuri. He died 19 days later and according to historians, he was 95 years old at the time.

Though her current status does not match the riches that many may expect considering the family’s big name, she says she is very happy with what she has and whom she is.

She is grateful to God for the more than 100 years she has lived. “It not my doing but His. It is not because of what I eat and do. I’m happy and grateful that He has brought be this far, and I believe He is still with me,” she says.

Although she is hesitant to admit it, Ms Gathoni’s diet has also contributed much to her longevity.

Her meals consist of boiled fresh foodstuffs like potatoes, green bananas, pumpkins, arrowroots, yams and meat. “I hardly take salt or rice. I can’t recall when I last had them,” says Ms Gathoni who also does not use cooking oil.

OLDEST PERSON
Due to her age, her great granddaughter Ms Ng’ethe plans to contact the Guinness World Records to see if she can be listed in their books.

According to the Guinness records, the oldest person alive is Emma Martina Luigia Morano, who is also 117 years old. She will turn 118 in November.

“No one has put her in the Guinness World Records yet. I was planning to as soon as I was done with the documentary,” she says when asked if the family has made any attempt to list her.

Ms Ng’ethe has been raised in London and the last time she was at her ancestral home was in 2015.

“Every time I see her, my heart is full of joy as she just breathes light,” says the 23-year-old.

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