Elizabeth Gathoni Koinange recently turned 117.
To celebrate, she hosted a party at her house outside Nairobi for her more than 100 descendants, who are scattered around the world.
One of them, great-granddaughter Priscilla Ng’ethe, took the opportunity to record this documentary about her for the BBC.
“Faith, love, and food are the fundamentals of Elizabeth’s life,” narrates Priscilla, a freelance journalist in London. “She rarely travels far, but the world comes to her through her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, like me.”
Born in 1900, Elizabeth grew up under British rule. In her twenties, she became the fifth wife of a prominent Kikuyu chief.
Though he worked for the British government, he eventually joined the anti-colonial movement and spent most of the 1950s as a political prisoner. During that time, Elizabeth was solely responsible for the care and feeding of 20 of her children and stepchildren.
“It was hard because we had nothing,” she tells Priscilla in the documentary.
Elizabeth and the kids survived by growing vegetables, selling them at a local market, and accepting handouts from friends and family. They did their best to avoid the British police, who were known for abusing the families of nationalists.
Elizabeth prefers not to dwell on those years.
“I don’t think of the past too much because I feel like it wears me down and stains my heart again,” she says in the documentary. “And I don’t like to do that.”
Instead, she focuses on the present. Her greatest pleasures include eating boiled yams and spending time with her youngest offspring.
“I certainly don’t fear death,” she says. “Yet I do not want to go, as there are still many things to do. I want to tell young people about life, about how to love and find the strength from God and live in peace.”
“So I have not finished yet.”
She likes to remind kids that old age is both natural and inevitable.
“You should know that even if you wear short dresses, you still get old one day,” she says.
Click here for a short video about Elizabeth’s birthday party.