When the food and beverage manager “Robert” at our hotel here in Morogoro stated that he had a grandmother that was 126 years old, I was skeptical. Robert is 34 so that would mean that his mother would have to be in her 90 to 100’s in order to have a grandmother who is 126. Of course I didn’t buy it, but I was curious. After a few questions and a little research, it turns out that here in Tanzania like many other African countries, they do not use the same titles for kin as we do in the US such as uncles, aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers. They are respectfully called fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, and can have mixed meanings. Your dad’s eldest brother is called your old father, and his youngest brother, your young father. In the case of Robert’s grandmother she is actually called the mother of all and a sister to some. Robert’s generational grandmother which we met at one of the three villages we visited was married in 1951 or 1952, and is still happily married after 63 years. She wasn’t sure of her age as the villagers have no reason to keep track of their age. And Robert’s grandmother’s grandmother at 126 is the mother of all.
We were guided by her great-great grandson Robert and his brother-in-law Rogers to the Tanga Region of Tanzania where there is a tiny village of Nkelie, in the Usumbara Mountains. We parked at the top of a hill where Robert escorted us to a small brick and mud hut behind a Catholic church. Kathy was the first to be invited in to her dwelling and was in there while I was talking to her relatives outside. Kathy came out of the dwelling and said “Dan you have to come and meet her”. Not exactly knowing what to expect, I was led by Kathy into the hut. I had to duck my head through the doorway as to not bump my head. Inside was the foyer the size of a closet with a dirt floor and one stool. The next room was not much larger with one small bed. These two rooms open to each other were so small that they fit no more than three or four people at a time. They were dark with only the light of the doorway passing through. A light smoke was in the air with an aroma reminiscent of a weekend campfire. To the left of these two rooms was the last room was Machambo, the mother of all.
There was a small stack of embers smoldering on the floor left of the entrance to her room that we were careful to avoid. The room was warm and smoky with a ray of light breaking through the small window in the wall. She sat on a low small bed and was patting the blanket next to her wanting me to sit down. The family guided me over there as if I was the special one in the room…I was not. I sat next to her and gently held her frail hand and she placed her other on top of mine. There was a sense of peace sitting in this room next to her; it was calming, and humbling. Her family in the room were polite, kind, attentive to Machambo, and very happy. The family explained to her that we had come a long way to meet her and she in turn said that God is the one that brought us, we again were very humbled. After a few questions and some family photos, we said good-bye and left the hut. When we were outside talking to the family, Machambo came out of the dwelling; she wanted us all to go into the church to pray.
We entered the church where her 60 year old son was the pastor. They called him her son, but he was much too young to be her son, and she was much too old to be his mother, we figured maybe a grandson. The church was of basic construction, wood pews and rafters, plaster walls, and a metal roof. They brought her to the front pew where they wanted us to hold hands and pray…we bowed our heads. In harmony, they prayed in Swahili…I could not understand the language, but had a heart felt sense that they were thanking God for all of His blessings.
In the church, I did ask Machambo what was the secret of life, she said “thank God for everything, it is all a blessing”.
There is no documented proof of her exact age with the exception of the villager’s and family stories that have passed down through generations. There will be skeptics…for me, I believe.
I thank Kathy my wife for coming along on this journey to see Machambo. She ultimately had the sense of calm, courage, and spiritual strength and helped me when I was not so much in the right frame of mind. There was much more to the story above as found in her email to her parents the day after our journey.
Good morning! How are you today?
The mission was to meet the grandmother of a man (Robert) who works her at the hotel. When he told us she was 126 years old, Dan said he would really like to meet her and take some photographs. And ALL OF A SUDDEN – I was Ethel to Dan’s Lucy.
Robert told us it was a four or five hour drive so Dan rented a car and driver and off we went to see the lady in the mountain. But – what we didn’t realize the 21 year old driver, Robert’s brother-in-law spoke little English had never driven stick shift before, so we were treated to a bumpy stop and stall ride all the way out of town while Rogers our driver learned the coordination of shifting gears and pressing the clutch.
Did you know that there are not many traffic police in Tanzania? The rules of the road seem to be optional because there is nobody to enforce them. The villagers walk on the side of the roads not even thinking about the possibility their lives are in risk. Drivers tend to speed toward the middle to avoid pedestrians, but somehow pay no attention to the double yellow lines and make crazy passes even when there is a hill or a blind corner. We drove like this for five hours on Friday — Dan was calling out driving instructions to the driver who understood very little English. I was secretly trying keep Dan calm while I was praying and putting it all in “God’s Hands”. Finally we stopped for the night.
Next morning we started off fresh – we were not on the open highway any more, the roads were in surprisingly good condition – smooth and well maintained. That is until – we got closer to the village, then we were in the mountains on one lane bumpy dirt trails, crossing streams – over rough terrain with huge boulders in the way, for five more hours (yes 10 hours in all). We slowly made our way up the mountain to meet Bibi — “the Grandmother of all”.
And meet her we did. . . when we arrived at the first village the ladies quickly took me by the hand and led me to a small hut made out of clay bricks. Dan stayed outside with the men. The old woman was sitting by a small fire. She was patting the bed, motioning for me to sit down. She held my hand and would not let go. She was talking in Swahili so I did not understand what she was saying. Her granddaughter was there and told me she was looking forward to our visit. She was so tiny, blind, but was in no way frail.
Dan and the men came in and we took some pictures of her with her family. When I stepped out of the hut. I began a fun game of peek-a-boo with the children who had never seen white skin before. Most laughed and played with me, but some were very scared.
When I thought we were leaving, suddenly Bibi was coming out of the hut. She wanted to pray with us in the church. So we went to church and had some prayers. She prayed in Swahili for quite a long time. It was very nice. (The pictures will be on the blog this week).
We brought gifts of sugar, tea, dried fish, cooking oil, corn flour, and kerosene for Bibi to share with the village. In return, they gave us some bananas, fresh eggs, and avocados. We kindly accepted the gifts, because Robert told us it would be an insult if we did not. —
Next village – off to meet some more relatives, Roberts Mom and some others. We went into her mud house and took more photos. Many villagers gathered around the house to see Robert, and get a glimpse of Dan and I. When we were leaving Dan gave out a single Altoid mint to each of the children. Funny how such a simple thing can give such joy. Even the shy kids put out their hands to receive a candy.
Last village – another grandfather and lunch. The last village was the most remote. The road probably had not seen a car in over a year. It was overgrown and rather scary. I at one point asked, with tears in my eyes and a beating chest, if we could just walk. I did not want to get stuck or fall of the road, but there was no place to turn around, so we had no choice to proceed. I again “gave it to God” and fortunately with His help, we made it. We met an old couple in their 90’s who were married since 1950, the wife was Robert’s grandmother, and her grandmother was Bibi. This was my favorite place. The kids were great. We went into a small hut. Where you had to move the coffee table so each person could sit down. Three on the couch and one person each on each of the three chairs. The villagers stood in the main room of the house, and the children peeked in the windows. When I would look at the kids they would duck down and laugh, then peek back up again. So funny. I got to give the Altoids this time. I felt like a Super Star! So many laughs over a breath mint. hahaha
We were treated to lunch of wali and kuku (rice and chicken). We again gave our gifts, and a little cash for kerosene. They gave us some bananas and some cardamom seeds. When we left the children chased the car for quite a while.
The ride home was a breeze – we took a short cut and it only took 7 hours. The road was bumpy, but not scary to us anymore because of all that we went through to get there. Whether Bibi was 126 or not, and even though it was terrifying at times, I will give this experience a “worth it” stamp. I am completely humbled by the people, and their generosity. I appreciate all I have been blessed with even more from this experience. This being said, I will not rush back to the mountains anytime soon.
Well back to my real life – homework due at midnight, and my procrastinating self didn’t even start yet.
Your glad to be alive middle child,
Update; 26th February 2016. Last month Robert informed us that Machambo the mother of all passed away at the end of December 2016…We are very humbled to have had the chance to meet one of God’s precious gifts and are sure Machambo is smiling at us from her place in heaven.