Being a centenarian or somebody who is 100 years old and above is a great achievement in Malawi, where life expectancy in 2013 is at 50 as calculated by the National Statistics Office (NSO). Her desk has no medals or awards, but being 101 years old is reason enough for us to celebrate her life. She talks to John Chirwa about her life.
It was a Saturday when I started off for Njuyu [in the northern Malawi district of] Mzimba, on an assignment to interview a 101-year-old woman, Jane Tembo.
As I arrived, when I first looked at her, I could not believe that she is 101 years old. The woman, carrying a baby on her lap, looked more energetic than her age. But two things proved her age—she has lost her sense of hearing and some memory.
The only way to communicate with her is to shout on top of one’s voice. Even my deep voice could not help matters.
The only person she easily communicates with is nine-year-old Glory Kumwenda, her great grandchild, probably because of her soft-spoken voice.
That meant Glory was to be our intermediary. But with Glory’s age, she could hardly repeat my questions successfully. This jeopardised the question and answers. Nevertheless, I got part of the story I needed.
The following is the interview, although she did not answer most of the questions.
When and where were you born?
I was born in July 1912, but I am not sure where I was born. It should be Mzimba. But it could also be in Lundazi, Zambia, because my father, Zebron Tembo, spent most of his time there, where he was working.
I come from Mawelela Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Kampingo Sibande. Currently, I stay in Mwanamsula village in the same T/A.
Tell us about your immediate family.
I come from a family of one brother and two sisters. God blessed me with eight children. But I lost six of them. I am staying with my last-born child, Smuts Kumwenda, who is now 62 years old. The other child, who was third born, Mary, an accountant, is working in Zambia.
My husband, Ishmael Kumwenda, did his primary and secondary school education at Njuyu and Livingstonia, respectively, before joining the teaching profession as a primary school teacher.
Around 1930s, we trekked to South Africa where he landed a job in the mines. He was the head mine clerk. All of my children were born in South Africa. My family returned to Malawi in 1957 though my husband went back in 1960. He returned in 1966 and died in 1985.
How did you cope with life after his death?
It was not easy. Since he was the bread winner of the family, we were living a good life. With his departure, it meant I had to fend for the family. Things are even worse now with the death of my six children.
My son Smuts has neither a job nor a wife. The only women around here are two wives to my grandchildren. So, if they are busy with other things, it’s my 11-year-old great grandchild who takes care of me. If he is at school then it means I will spend most of the day hungry.
Take us through your education journey
I didn’t go far with education. I only did up to Standard Four. But, at least, I am able to read and write. I can’t remember the schools, but it should have been in Mzimba.
What was your job title or occupation?
I didn’t have a decent job then. Sometimes I would wash and iron clothes for well-to-do people.
How was your childhood, especially the teenage years?
Things have changed tremendously. During our time, girls and boys of age would not sleep in the same house with their parents. Girls had their own house called nthanganeni (or gowelo in Chichewa) whereas boys would sleep in a mphala. That was how much we respected our parents.
How do you compare your childhood with today’s?
These days children are difficult to get advice from adults. I advise my great grandchildren, but they never listen.
What are some of your achievements?
One thing I am proud of is that I educated all my children, including the women. They all found good jobs. One daughter was a registered nurse; another one was a telephone operator in South Africa while the other one was an accountant with Admarc [apart from the living one who is an accountant in Zambia]. It’s unfortunate that I lost most of my children.
I took a bold step to educate even my daughters because I realised that these are the people who would take care of me when I am old. For instance, it is my daughter, Mary, who is helping me financially. Life would have been more difficult without sending her to school.
What are other challenges that you have gone through in life?
It has been two years now since my hearing got impaired. In addition, I can’t walk. I crawl or sometimes I use a wheelchair. This problem is eating me up. Imagine I spend all day on the same place. It’s not easy, it’s boring. Sometimes, I pray to God to take my life.
What is that thing that you cannot do without?
The Bible, I like reading the Bible. But now the problem is that I can’t read it for a long time because, sooner or later, tears flood my eyes.
What has been your secret for such a long life?
I keep the rules of hygiene and good diet. I bath every day, I can’t sleep without bathing. Although sometimes I sleep on an empty stomach, but whenever I find a chance, I make sure that I eat a balanced diet.
What moment do you cherish most?
My 100th birthday celebration last year stands out. A lot of people visited me and I received a lot of gifts. That was the time I appreciated what love really is. I hope this year will be the same.