“In life there are many challenges, and challenges are good, because when you overcome them you grow.” Those were the words of the last elderly man I spoke to when we visited Thogoto home for the aged in Kikuyu a few weeks ago. Slender, tall, constantly adjusting his belt, donning a yellow cap pulled slightly to the side, he cuts the figure of an old man still in touch with his youth. But the smoothness of the queen’s language that he speaks is something else.
He wanted to talk more but our time was over, all members of our bible study group were already out of the gate while I still chatted with the wazees. When I said to the old man that I had to leave, he asked me if I have a curfew.
I must have looked at him in a peculiar manner, prompting him clarify his words. “It’s like a curfew” he reiterated, adding that he didn’t mean a real curfew ‘but something like a curfew’. I can’t say that I completely understood what he was saying, and maybe that is why he wanted to continue the conversation.
“When you can come back, look for me” he said as I bid him and others farewell and headed out.
And that was something that most of the elderly men I spoke to seemed to say. They had immense gratitude for our visit and most importantly conversations. Most of them would say “When you come back, we shall talk more” or “make sure you come back.” They genuinely expect that the visit is not a one off.
But it was a sobering experience seeing helpless but lively elderly people. It made me realize that I had never seen so many elderly people in the same place (about 40 of them live at the home).
We arrived around midday and the heat was unforgiving even in the mostly cold Kikuyu. Most of the elderly people were seated under a shade outside, some napping, others drooling and others just chilling.
Unfortunately, I could not speak to some of them due to language barrier but those that we talked, the conversations were remarkable. Remarkable in a way that most of them are authentic, chilling, and sometimes even scary. Speaking with those old people will not leave you the same.
I played draft with a ninety-one-year-old freedom fighter who says joined Mau Mau the same day as Dedan Kimathi. He speaks multiple languages and tells his age to the minute. “I am 91 years old, 200 days, 5 hours, 24 minutes and … seconds.” The man is just that precise, and knows his history, evidenced by the newspaper cuttings he carries around in the inner pocket of his caught.
“This is General Mathenge and this is me” he shows me pointing to a picture of them taken in Addis Ababa in 1961 when they went to receive Jomo Kenyatta. He has an exercise book full of his Mau Mau stories written in Swahili and Kikuyu.
Comparing how strong he was in the newspaper picture and his frail figure now, he made me appreciate the energy that I have now to do most of the things that I want to do.
One question that is most common among the old people is where you come from, which is typical of elderly people everywhere. They connect a lot on proximity. You can tell that they want to know what is going on now in the place they came from and in other parts of the country. Some of them traveled a lot in their youthful days and they might identify with you because they know your town or village. Some just want to know, you might just turn out to be a grandchild or a relative.
Others will be more personal, asking if you have a wife and children, what you do for a living, where you live and so on.
But from the visit one thing that is for sure is that you come face to face with the realities of aging, which is quite sobering. Holding the hand of an old man who is going blind and walking a distance of 20 meters for 15 minutes is quite the reality check.
Sitting with an old man who asks you the same questions over and over again, even after you have answered all of them tells you that even memory is vulnerable.
An elderly lady complaining that she wasn’t told that visitors were coming to ‘her house’ tells you that bodily functions are temporary.
The reality of aging and not having a family, not being visited by family, being abandoned by family are very real in that center.
Despite the challenges, what those aged people really appreciate is that visit, that shaky handshake, those conversations and the fact that you thought of them.
One of the fascinations of the day for them was two-year-old Billy, the son of Silas and Judy our group leader. The old people, especially the grandmas really enjoyed their time with Billy, who is quite jovial and outgoing for a two-year-old. “Now this is our agemate” they would say. It was amazing to see the effect of a child on old people. Next time you visit the home, go with children. You will make their day.
After lunch a group of university students who had also visited arranged chairs in a circle next to the shade where the aged were resting. They sat there and started playing some game. When we came, we some found them washing clothes for the old people and others were cooking. They had done quite some good work, but I noticed that none of them spoke to the old people.
On occasion, I could see one or two of them interacting with the old people, or helping them here and there, albeit short-lived.
‘Do they know what they are missing’ I thought to myself. They could be having real life conversations with the old people, they could learn a lot of history, and they could build amazing relationships. But then I noticed that they were quite young. They will grow and understand these things, I thought to myself.
Is having conversations with people something that can be taught or is it just caught? That is a question for another day.
For now, I am thinking of going back there, actually I am expected to go back there and since I don’t want to disappoint my new old friends, I will have to plan for it. But I want to go with other men and women who can take time out to have conversations with those elders. Who’s with me?