09-09-2020 by Freddie del Curatolo
It seemed to be one of the many legends that will never enter the Guinness Book of World Records and give only ephemeral notoriety to those who have lived a centuries-old existence far from the spotlight and even less from the dazzling media confusion of modern society.
Julius Wanyondu Gatonga, a Kenyan from the Nyeri region, could indeed be the world's oldest man if DNA testing confirmed what is written on his national identity card: born in 1884. He would be 19 years older than the current longevity recordmen, the Japanese Tanaka, born in 1903 and officially recognized for his 117 years.
In reality, the former railroad worker (or rather, his grandchildren who are trying to make his record official) cannot appeal to the document, because the Guiness experts know very well how unreliable the African registry office is. Moreover, in colonial times in rural areas, it was registered only in case of access to a school or religious institution.
For Kenyan institutions that date dates back to the time of Independence when Gatonga asked to be registered in the health registry. The archives of the offices in charge did not arrive so far behind, and the speech was repeated years later. No pensions or health insurance for those born before 1900.
But there are many temporal coincidences that could suggest the authenticity of the date of birth of the Kenyan ultracentenary. Julius tells the Kenyan press agency KNA that, like all Kikuyu at the time, he was circumcised and that he was part of the so-called "telephone company", because at the time the telephone had just arrived in Nairobi and Mombasa and the group of young people entering adulthood called themselves "Rika ria thimu".
The telephone society is typical of the early twentieth century. According to his memories, the Methuselah of Nyeri was circumcised at the age of 24 in 1908.
There are many other circumstances that would suggest at least a 115 year old man. The fifth son, the only one alive, is 76 and remembers an already old father when he was a child, and a dead older brother who seemed to be the same age as his father.
"For all I know," says his son Jackson, "he could be even older than the date on his ID.
During the interview given to People Daily, Gatonda, a jovial and shiny little man six feet tall, told about his first wife who had two children. He had eight more with his second wife. All passed away before him, except Jackson and an eighty-year-old sister. His lineage, according to rumors, would reach 150 people including grandchildren bis, tris and quater.
Gatonda told that he started working as a waiter for an Indian in Nairobi at the beginning of the 20th century, earning 3 shillings a month. Then with the opening of the East African railways (1901) he started working in the company, before leaving work and allowing himself to live with the products of his farm in his home village of Weru.
At the rural village, the super centenarian says he was a great dancer and entertained the villagers with traditional Kikuyu dances that drew huge crowds.
In the adventurous existence of James Wanyondu Gatonga there is also the arrest and detention in the infamous Manyani detention camp during the Mau Mau war for independence. His guilt had been supplying food to the fighters in the forest. Years earlier, in 1922, he was in the square as an adult when they arrested trade unionist Harry Thuku. It was one of the first "hot" moments when Kenya became aware of its identity as a free nation.
But his memories of war go even further back, he also has memories of the echoes of the First World War, as well as the second with the numerous prison camps in and around Nyeri, where hundreds of Italians were detained.
Today Gatonda sees little and feels even less, her stomach accepts almost only vegetable purées but is in good health. She warns young people to avoid alcohol and smoke and to eat as much as possible products from her village, especially vegetables.
But the real secret of longevity, according to Gatonda, is never to quarrel with anyone and live with the conscience of being honest. It is good for the heart. And the son confirms that his father has always been like that.
In this day and age, it is almost rarer than seeing a hundred years old.
by Freddie del Curatolo
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