DESPITE the poor healthcare and high infant mortality in much of Africa, many people nonetheless live to a grand age.
When the charity Concern Worldwide showed the News Letter round some of Mozambique’s most isolated villages, we were introduced to a number of their most elderly inhabitants.
How old were they, I wondered?
But they do not know their age, because chronologies and dates and such numbers have not been important to them.
Most people over the age of about 50 will not know their age.
Some young people don’t know their age either.
When I was interviewing one family about a bereavement, even the daughter – probably around 20 – did not know her age.
When I asked the age of the grandchildren, the family handed me ID cards which have their date of birth in Portuguese, the language of Mozambique’s former colonial master.
They did this so that I could work out the ages, something they were evidently unable to do themselves.
And yet when I interviewed other teenagers in the village of Nhangalaze, on an island in the Zambezi River, they were able to tell me their age in English.
Education is uneven in such villages.
There are limited places in schools, and persuading some families to send their children to class at all, particularly their daughters, is difficult.
It seems likely that some of the elderly people lived through the Second World War. Some may even have been adults at that time.
I ask about changes, but they can’t say that things changed with the television, because they don’t have televisions.
They don’t even have electricity, so they can’t say that things changed with that.
They can’t say that things changed with cars, because they don’t have those.
They don’t have most of the healthcare advances that we have taken for granted in Europe for 50 or 100 years.
They certainly don’t have mobile phones or computers.
Things in these villages seem barely to have changed for centuries. In a hot climate where there is no power, people go to bed early and rise well before sunrise to work on the fields or fish.
They are among a dwindling number of people in the world whose lives have been largely untouched by technology.
One of the eldest women in Nhangalaze, which is in Zambezia province, is Aisa Jaime, who has no children, but a brother and nieces and nephews.
Unaware of her age, she says the main difference from the past is that she no longer works in various jobs such as collecting water and helping prepare food.
It is a happy village, she says, and she has had a good life.
In another isolated village, Mucuandaia, in the same district in the middle of Mozambique, Chanase Chinde is a great grandmother who is similarly unaware of her age.
Asked about any differences between today and the distant past, her response (as translated from tribal languages to Portuguese to English) is that in the past there was “bang bang” – war.
But which war? The war of independence from Portugal began in the early 1960s and turned into a 16-year civil war, ending in 1991.
Perhaps she is referring to World War Two, although Portugal was neutral in that conflict. She cannot describe which war she means.
There was suffering during the fighting, she says, but elderly folk do not complain about suffering. We see some whose fingers and toes have long been deformed due to skin diseases.
Concern is helping to raise basic living standards in these villages, such as solar-powered radio stations to connect the villages to the wider world and agricultural improvements, such as wire and wooden decks to help dry out produce including the staple food cassava.
They are building cyclone-resistant homes and classrooms too, which means that more of today’s children will know things such as their own age, and how to write it.