A thin cloud of dust swirls over the bumpy road to Hdiruni where someone, perhaps carried by a bicycle or ox cart, has recently passed by. Few brave the heat on this scorching afternoon; only a handful of farmers remain outdoors, tending dutifully to their rice and coffee crops.
The banana trees, once bright green under plentiful rainfall, have turned a crispy shade of brown. Even the animals that chew on their roots have lost their usual sense of enthusiasm, preferring to bask in the shade of the leaves rather than eat them.
It is here, in this small village southeast of Chuka town, that we find Jesca Ciahcabi, sitting tranquilly in the shadow of a small but sturdy mud-plastered home. The great-great-grandmother does not get up to greet us because, at an estimated 110 to 114 years old, she must pick and choose her movements carefully.
(We could not get documentary evidence of the age of these two women, and so we relied on their recollections and those of their children to arrive at their estimated time of birth).
Her face, however, crinkles into a warm and toothless grin, adding a layer to the impossible number of wrinkles that already cover her well-worn visage. Beaming, she welcomes us in her native Gichuka as her grandson, Oswald Mwenda, translates.
“I am very excited!” she says, hoisting herself up with the help of a cane. “I even started bathing early enough because I could not wait!”
Today is a big day for Mama Jesca, her grandson explains; for the first time in a long time, she will leave the compound to visit Habisag Jaction.
Habisag is her closest childhood friend and lives on a farm just down the road. It is too far a distance for either of them to walk, however, and they have not seen each other in years.
“That is why when I found out I would be visiting her, I was very excited,” says Jesca, “because she is the closest person to my heart.”
Without another word, she eases into the back of Mwenda’s car and opens a soda for the ride. After stopping to greet friends and family in the village, we finally arrive at the gate to Habisag’s compound.
Inside, Habisag, whose age is estimated to be between 110 and 120, sits quietly beneath a banana tree, shelling macadamia nuts in a bowl. When Jesca walks in, she drops her work and extends her arms, ready for a warm embrace.
Still hugging her childhood friend, Habisag surveys Jesca up and down. Her bright eyes, despite having lost their pigment, are still in remarkable working condition.
“You look healthy,” she says with delight. “Not much has changed.”
“Age has really caught up with you,” Jesca replies, and they laugh and kiss like long-lost sisters.
They are so old they say they cannot remember the last time they saw each other, yet soon they are holding hands and chatting as if it was only yesterday.
Sipping tea from the comfort of lawn chairs, they pore over childhood memories, beginning with the moment they met.
“We met when we were young girls because we were from neighbouring villages,” Jesca explains. “We used to meet specifically at dance parties.”
In the early 1900s, before Chuka was formally established, village communities would come together to celebrate harvests, weddings, circumcisions, and other traditional cultural ceremonies.
Habisag, being from Kaumo village, and Jesca, from Upper Kathiru, would frequently skip their chores to primp and prepare for these special events.
“We really enjoyed dancing, so sometimes we would run away from our duties and go dance,” says Habisag. “We would take a bath, apply oil on our bodies, and once we got to the dance arena and the men had lined up, we would choose the ones we wanted to dance with.”
Suddenly, something stirs in Jesca’s mind — a particular memory from one of these dances. She relays the recollection to Habisag, who quickly dissolves into fits of laughter.
“There used to be very many types of dances, but the most exciting was one that we danced with men when we would knock our noses together,” Jesca explains. “We would dance while knocking noses! That’s how we used to socialise and that’s where we have fond memories that we shared when we were young.”
At their advanced age, the women have been friends for more than a century. They are the oldest people in Hdiruni, and according to whispers around the village, Habisag may even be the oldest person in all of Kenya.
“I never used to believe that I would grow this old,” she says. “When I was young, I lost one of my siblings who was older than me, so I used to think I would be next.”
NO FORMAL IDs
The women are frequently asked how it is they know their age, given that formal identification was not issued in Kenya at the time of their birth. They are able to calculate, they say, based on their memories of historical events and personal records kept by their families.
“We used to be initiated in our 20s,” Jesca explains. “We were given a name along with those we were initiated with that forms the name of our age group.”
Both Mama Jesca and Mama Habisag are named Kiambutu, along with all Chuka girls who were circumcised during the early 1920s.
They also remember being young women when the first white men came to town and Chuka was established in 1913.
“They set up administrative units and started employing chiefs,” she recalls. “The chiefs would now be in charge of a certain community and coordinate the village men to secure the villages from (cattle) raiders.”
According to family documentation, Habisag was born in 1894 and Jesca in 1900. They were married in 1915 and 1925 respectively, and had 10 and nine children, respectively.
“In our young days we used to visit each other (often), especially when a child was born,” says Habisag. “We would visit, give gifts and also assist the mother, with household chores.”
Jesca’s oldest son, Ezekiel Mutegi, now 80 years old, remembers these occasions well. He says Mama Habisag was a constant presence in their home and very supportive of his growing family.
“Habisag used to be very close to our house and she was very motherly and close to me,” he says. “Actually, I would wish to describe her as a second mother.”
Their families are now linked through marriage, making Habisag and Jesca distant relatives. The women are the sixth and oldest generation among their kin, which, combined, totals 19 children, 131 grandchildren, 158 great-grandchildren, and 28 great-great-grandchildren.
They have lost track of the number of great-great-great-grandchildren, says Mr Mwenda, who is struggling to add up all of the descendants on a crumpled piece of paper. He picks up his cell phone to call his siblings, who may be able to help him with names.
It is now late afternoon and the sun has passed its peak in the sky. A cool breeze blows through the compound, ruffling the leaves of the crispy banana trees. Jesca and Habisag take no notice of the hour or temperature as they hold hands and swap news of their grandchildren.
Fascinated by the length of their lineage, I ask them how they managed to grow so old. Is it a lifestyle or skill they can teach to others, or did they simply win the genetic lottery?
It is nothing so complicated, they laugh, happy to divulge their special secret. “I can confirm that the food we used to have is the secret to our old age,” says Jesca. “If I had the chance I would wish to have that food (again) because I don’t like the food we have these days.”
Growing up, the women ate a traditional diet of beans, maize, finger millet, and sorghum, often cooked or mashed. Nothing was fried, Jesca explains, and the food was rich and high in nutrition value.
“The food that we have today is not good for our health,” she says. “It does not even satisfy our stomachs.”
Today, they eat mostly tea and bread, unable to digest many of the complex foods of modern cooking. But diet is not the only secret to their advanced years, says Habisag, who swears by a regular routine of prayer.
“Other than food, the secret to long life is living a stress-free life,” she explains, “and having a firm belief in God.”
“Being faithful is the key,” Jesca agrees, “I am very much disturbed by the life and trade the young people are taking today. There is a lot of dishonesty and unfaithfulness.”
Our conversation takes a serious turn as the women discuss a century of evolution in culture, politics, and technology in Kenya.
They reminisce about life before modern medicine, before their people wore dresses and trousers, before the first colonisers came to their village.
“I am embracing the (new) things and I am learning to get used to them because when we were young, we used to be scared of virtually everything,” says Jesca. “More specifically, when white men visited us we would run away and hide. Now we have integrated with people of all races.”
She remembers the first time she rode in a vehicle; in 1944 on her way to the hospital. Today, she looks back on the memory fondly, but at the time, it was a somewhat traumatic experience.
“It was a bus driven by a guy from Embu,” she describes. “It was scary — I had to be lifted into the vehicle because I panicked!”
Her “favourite invention” of the 20th century is definitely the mobile phone, she says, which allows her to stay in touch with her grandchildren. Now that everyone they grew up with has died, the women say grandchildren are the reason their hearts keep on beating.
“I find joy every day when I wake up and find my grandchildren who are mindful of my welfare,” Habisag explains. “They give me a lot of hope and make me feel like living older.”
Having already passed the century mark, neither Habisag nor Jesca has set a “target age”; they merely wish to live long enough to accomplish their personal goals.
Before they die, Habisag would like to become a “pillar of peace” in her community and Jesca would like to see all of her grandchildren finish their schooling.
“I don’t like seeing children drop out of school and I don’t like seeing children who are not attending school,” she says, touching her head to indicate a graduation cap. “When (my grandchildren) tell me they are flying all over the world, they are in good schools and universities, I feel like living longer.”
In fact, it is through their younger family members that Jesca and Habisag remain in touch now that they are too old to make personal calls.
Every now and then, they send their little ones running to deliver messages and greetings between their compounds.
‘We are an item’
“We still maintain our friendship even though we rarely have an opportunity to meet,” says Jesca, once again facing her childhood friend. “We still know in our hearts that we are very close.”
“We are an item, both of us,” Habisag responds, wrapping her arms around her sister. “I love Mama Jesca so much because other than having grown up together, she also appreciates me and has children who appreciate me.”
As the sun starts to set, the women show subtle signs of fatigue. The crickets are out, the breeze has gone, and they have been sitting together for more than four hours. I thank them again for answering my questions, because I know that time is a precious commodity. Four hours is a blink of our eyes, they say, sending me home with a handful of macadamia nuts.
“We are very excited to share this story,” says Habisag, “tell the world that you found very cheerful golden ladies.”
After many goodbyes and one last hug, I open the door for Mama Jesca, who is making her way to her grandson’s car. Before stepping in, she glances back at Mama Habisag, who offers a smile and a tender wave. Jesca waves back, but says nothing as the car door closes.
After more than 100 years of friendship, the women know that words are not necessary.