Question: Who is Africa’s oldest living man or woman? Who holds the all-time record for number of years lived and where on the continent are we most likely to find the highest concentration of grand old fellows?
These are interesting questions but sadly, there are no straightforward answers. The reason is simple: Africa has not overcome the basic challenges of low literacy levels and poor record-keeping practices that hinder the proper collection and analysis of data.
Officially, Jeanne Louise Calment of France holds the world record for longevity; she died at age 122 years and 164 days.
But it is not uncommon to hear of a certain old man or woman somewhere in Africa who is reputed to have lived to be several years or decades older than Louise Calment.
South African Betje de Vroome believes she was born in 1866, and she could very easily stake a claim to being the world’s oldest person at 149 years. She is an amazing matriarch who has lived to see her great-great-great-great-grandchildren – a mind-blowing fifth generation in her life time. But like so many other long-lifers around Africa, de Vroome has no birth records and her age, however true, cannot be substantiated.
In Ethiopia, Dhaqato Ebba‘s recollection of historical events and the breakdown of his family tree suggests that he has lived for a whopping 160 years. Ebba is sure he was born sometime in the 1850’s, but he, too, has no documents or birth records to back up his claims.
Similar accounts of extreme cases of human longevity in Africa include a woman who died recently in southern Nigeria, aged 191 years. Some of those accounts of longevity are, of course, outrageous and have to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Some may reason that while such stories of longevity may be outlandish, they are not altogether impossible, considering that people who lived in the recent past generally had a healthier lifestyle, enjoyed a 100 percent natural food diet, exercised more regularly and presumably worried less.
While all of that is true, they also had to contend with elements, poor medical and emergency services and the wear and tear of hard physical labour. So it would have been nothing like the utopia some people may want to imagine.
Typically, most of the hard-to-believe accounts of longevity in Africa have come from sub-Saharan villages and rural areas with poor literacy or numeracy rates, which effectively means that the proper numbering or counting of intangibles like the changing times and seasons can be quite a challenge. Ages in such communities are actually estimates based on important events and simple memory. Unrecorded memory can be a tricky thing to rely on, as it has been known to fool even its owner.
Indeed, such accounts of outrageous longevity are scarce around Northern Africa and the Maghreb region all the way down to Timbuktu and Kano where elementary numeracy was historically more prevalent, thanks to Islamic/Arabic influences.
On the other hand, this may well just mean that people in sub-Saharan African live much longer. After all, longevity is often a combination of several factors: environment, good genes, standard of living, income/earning and lifestyle.
A look at data prepared by the World Health Organisation showing current estimates for life expectancy across Africa shows that environment appears to be the single most important factor in determining life expectancy across Africa. At birth, a Mauritian baby is expected to live for an average of 74 years; a baby born in Seychelles would most likely celebrate a 73rd birthday. Mauritius and Seychelles are both islands nations off the east coast of the African mainland. In fact, 4 out of the 10 countries with the highest life expectancy in Africa are islands. Cape Verde which ranks as number 2, São Tomé and Príncipe rounds out the list.
A solid economy that provides a reasonable per capita income for the citizens would seem to be an important factor. Each of the top 10 countries with highest life expectancy in Africa have an annual per capita income of at least $3000. At the same time, Senegal, Rwanda and Madagascar all rank at the top of life expectancy index in Africa, but none of them have an amazing economy to boast about.
Prevalent good genes probably rank high in making citizens of some nations outlive others. Peace and stability are perhaps even more important factors in determining a nation’s life expectancy. At the bottom of the list of Africa’s life expectancy index are nations with a history of instability: Central African Republic, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The life expectancy in any one of these countries hovers between 50 and 53 years. Sierra Leone is at the very bottom of the pile: a baby born in that country today would be considered lucky to celebrate a 47th birthday.