The Herald (Harare)

10 November 2012

Zimbabwe: Mbuya Hicks Possibly World Oldest Person

Barely three months ago, the world's oldest person, Mrs Besse Cooper, celebrated her 116th birthday and became the eighth person in the world to ever have been verified by the Guinness Book of World Records as having reached that age.

However, unknown to many, Zimbabwe might actually be hosting the actual record holder in the name of Mbuya Chizanhi Mhembere of Mushavatu Village in Domboshava.

Judging from the experiences she says characterised her teenage years which vary from the First Chimurenga of 1896, the preceding year of influenza and the hanging of Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi, Mbuya Chizanhi might indeed be the world record holder, except her real age needs to be ascertained first.

She bore nine children, has 35 grandchildren, 99 great-grandchildren and nine great-great grandchildren, a feat that many never contemplate possible.

Using simple mathematical calculation, if she did see the 1896 uprisings, in her late teens, as she says she did, and then she might really be more than 130 years of age.

The very senior citizen says she has seen it all -- a mark of the advanced years.

During her time, children were not allowed to see the dead but holes would be drilled at the back of houses so that the dead could be taken for burial without children seeing.

The visibly shy, Mbuya Hicks, or Gogo Hicks as she is affectionately known by her family, says she only dated once in her life, to the one who later became her husband, Mr Mutovongerwa Mushavatu.

Now living with her daughter, 70-year-old Rebecca Muviyi in Harare's high density suburb of Mbare, Mbuya Hicks says she is privileged to have lived in the untainted world before the coming of the white men.

"When the whites came, most of us were scared and I was not an exception. The first days we ran as fast as we could but gradually we became used, though we started hating them even more when they started introducing chibharo (forced labour," she said.

Her favourite hobbies are dancing to ngororombe and jerusalema and her favourite food is sadza rezviyo and meat cooked without oil.

She says that she does not feel left out but is rather dismayed at the depreciation of standards that characterise present day.

"My boyfriend, who later became my husband and I were more of friends. Of course, he would buy me goodies from his job as a tailor but he was never to touch me in any way before marriage, there was no kissing or hugging," she says.

"If ever a boy would do that to a girl then the girl's family would chase her away to the home of the boy," Mbuya Hicks says.

Her face quickly lights up as she describes the loot that made up her lobola payment.

"Akaunza gumi repondo nepondo shanu, nemombe sere neimwe yaamai, ndakafara. (He brought 30 pounds, and eight cattle and another for my mother. I was happy),"she beams.

From her description of the lobola list, it is evident that the woman, though long separated from her husband, has intense love reserved just for him.

Though later widowed after bearing eight children, Gogo Hicks later lived with her brother-in-law, as part of the custom of kugara nhaka where a widowed wife was allowed to choose from among her deceased husband's relatives one to assume the fatherly role.

"My brother-in-law was far much younger than me, but I still chose him because then unless I did so, my children would stay and I would go back to my father's place.

"I could not bear to leave them at the mercy of just anyone, hence I decided to stay and we lived happily even though he later married his own wife, there was peace in the home because I accorded him the respect he deserved because he was my husband," she says.

Decades later, the practice has since lost significance, is being shunned by many because of the coming of sexually transmitted infections and the fact that some greedy relatives would pretend to assume the provision role only to snatch the little assets left to the family for their own.

Gogo Hicks blames the prevalence of STIs to the irresponsibility of those of the younger generation.

"People no longer respect the matrimonial home. If anything, morals have died away, it's as if one is living alone in the world, young men lead girls to elope, at the end a girl goes for free to become one's wife and this is completely unfair to the father," she says.

When probed to discuss most of the things that made up her life then, she quickly dismisses it and says she does not remember but little help is required when it comes to her love life.

She openly condemns some of the Shona practices namely, kuzvarira and musengabere which did not allow females to choose marriage partners.

"Mutovongerwa and me were in love, though his aunt was married to my brother no one played match maker. We fell in love, dated for a year and got married beautifully," she says.

To her the liberation struggle which led to the country's independence from colonial bondage is so recent as it occurred when she could no longer bear children, the period biologically known as menopause.

She says she was among the few, in her time who had the privilege to have cloth to wrap around, after the coming of the white men, and later on clothes, after her husband became a tailor.

"We grew up accustomed to skins to cover ourselves. That was the norm, but after the white men came then we were able to have the luxury of cloth, though this was only for special occasions," she says.

The only English word her family says she knows is "disturb", though she can hardly pronounce it properly.

"We never got to go to school after a teacher who had come to our area fell in love with one of the girls in our village. He was chased away and that is how me and those in my family said goodbye to formal education," she says, showing no signs of remorse, as if there is nothing significant about that type of education.

Her son, Alexander Mushavatu, says his mother is a miracle.

"She is a wonder to us all. What pains us nowadays is her constant talk of death. Whenever she falls sick she wishes to die, when she gets better we often see her crying, saying she is ridding the young ones of enough air to breathe.

"You see, she has seen grandchildren being born, raising families and dying and we suppose this is the result of her distress," he says sadly.

Muviyi says her mother has been a wonderful role model.

"The way she respected my father and even her second husband who was far much younger than her taught us how to conduct our own homes. We take pride in her because though we were poor she never did unlawful things to earn us a living.

"She believes in truthfulness, integrity, honesty and love," she says.

Gogo Hicks is a member of the Roman Catholic Church and receives the Holy Communion each Sunday from home as she can no longer walk the long distance to church. She loves gospel music and a bit of TV as long as gospel music is playing.

It remains to be seen whether the world will soon focus on Zimbabwe as having the oldest person in the world, but to us who have seen her and have the pleasure of living close to her, she is indeed the beauty and wonder of God in our midst.

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