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Curtain falls on Kenya’s oldest woman

Tuesday July 21 2009

Mr Stephen Kingara, 75, the last born of Rahab Wangui Ng’ang’a who was 125 years old when she died recently, stresses a point during the interview on Tuesday. Photo/ JENNIFER MUIRURI

Mr Stephen Kingara, 75, the last born of Rahab Wangui Ng’ang’a who was 125 years old when she died recently, stresses a point during the interview on Tuesday. Photo/ JENNIFER MUIRURI  


On the morning of July 11, Rahab Wangui Ng’ang’a died peacefully in her bedroom at her son’s house at Thakwa in Githunguri.

Neither her birth nor her death on that cold morning would be considered significant until one realises that the two events were at least 125 years apart.

Her year of birth in the first-generation identification card issued in 1979 is given as 1884 —with no specific day or month—and church records show as much.

Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, was born in 1889.

Her year of birth was based on information she gave then about her riika (age group) and on the events of her childhood she could speak clearly about.

Grazing field

Among these was the arrival of some porters from the Kenyan coast at a grazing field she knew then as Kinuini, present-day Pangani, in Nairobi.

Pangani was so named because it was the point at which the Swahili-speaking porters would tell the rest to arrange their loads on arrival in Nairobi. It is derived from “Pangeni” and Nairobi was only a stop on the railway line that would later inadvertently grow into a city.

The longest documented lifespan by information website Wikipedia, is that of Jeanne Calment of France (1875–1997), who died aged 122 years and 164 days.

With verification, Mrs Ng’ang’a, at 125, could easily have been the oldest living person alive. In Kenya, women were first issued with IDs in 1978 when she was 94.

Mrs Ng’ang’a is said to have had her first-born, Gladys Wambui, in 1917. Her husband Joseph Ng’ang’a had just returned from Burma where he had fought on behalf of the British in World War I.

Five more were to follow, with the last-born being born in 1936.

Not that nobody has ever taken notice of the fact that Mrs Ng’ang’a could have been one of the oldest people alive.

“Her grandchildren have often gone back to their universities in the US and come back with people who wanted to interview her but I refused. I did not want her to be disturbed, but now that she is dead, we might as well talk about it,” said her last-born son, Mr Stephenson King’ara when the Nation visited their home.

One of the people who wanted to tell Mrs Ng’ang’a’s story was a grandson who had studied Mass Communication, and eagerly brought his friends home to talk to his grandmother. The watchful son blocked the attempt.

Mrs Ng’ang’a has lived through two world wars, the laying of the railway through Kenya, the arrival of the British and their colonisation of Kenya and their subsequent departure.

By the time the Emergency was being declared by Governor Evelyn Baring in 1952, she had settled on her own farm at Githunguri.

They were not good times for her, though, as her son, Simon Ngugi, was being harassed for his association with the Githunguri Teachers College, where Mzee Kenyatta had been teaching.

Another son, Stephano Ngure, was detained at Manyani, while his father still suffered the depressing effects of fighting in a war he cared little about.

Mrs Ng’ang’a also experienced the Cold War, man’s landing on the moon and survived the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Moi regimes.

Mr King’ara, 75, and other relatives were poring through records and photographs he has patiently been collecting about his mother when the Nation arrived.

It is no easy task and they need to compare notes every two minutes when they realise a priest who baptised her only wrote his initials on the card.

Cleared the land

Mr King’ara says his mother would often talk about her father having been among those who cleared the land on which the railway is built.

That was before 1900. It was then that they took the cattle to graze at Pangani, having walked from Riruta, which was then known as Baraniki.

When her father died, Mrs Ng’ang’a and her family — her mother, co-wife and their families — moved to Riabai in Kiambu, where she met and got married before settling permanently at Giachumi, a few kilometres from Githunguri Town.

“What was the secret to her old age? Was it her diet and her health?” we asked.

Although he said his mother’s delayed exposure to ‘modern’ food could have contributed to her old age, he felt her peaceful demeanour could have been the secret.

“She has never tolerated conflict in her home and even when she would discipline me, it was always after we had discussed my offence,” said Mr King’ara.

The longest time she spent in hospital was a month at the Aga Khan Hospital in 1998, where her son had taken her to have her leg amputated. It was not, and she only lost a toe that had turned gangrenous after suffering a slight injury.