Sunday, August 11, 2019 1:59 am
By Ademola Adegbamigbe
That some people live long, many do not and the reasons for these came into bold relief on Friday, 9 August, when the low, high and the mighty poured goodwill messages on Chief Akintola Williams like confetti. It was not because of his being the first African Chartered Accountant and other trail blazing achievements that have turned benchmarks for others, but that he has lived to mark his 100th birthday. PMNEWS wrote the headline in a way that carries more weight than the headline itself: “100 Years on Earth…” One could imagines the one casting the headline exclaiming under his breath, “wow!”
This presupposes that Williams and others like him who surpassed the Biblical age of three scores and 10 have achieved feats that others failed to, especially in an environment where life expectancy average has plummeted dangerously down the slope. Some of them: Professor Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate, 85 years; Chief Ayo Adebanjo, an Afenifere leader, 91; Charles Olumo alias Agbako in the Nigerian Yoruba movies, 94; Aremo Segun Osoba, 80; Lateef Jakande, 90; Sam Amuka Pemu, Vanguard Publisher, 84; Pastor E.A Adeboye, General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, 77; Ray Ekpu, 71 and many others.
On the other hand, if you open the pages of national dailies, you would be assailed by the photographs of forty or fifty of sixty something-year olds who have departed! So, why do some people make it to old age and others do not? Mr Ray Ekpu put it succinctly in an article he wrote last year, entitled “ Not Easy to be Old,” when he turned 70. Longevity, according to him, is determined by two factors, namely (a) genes and (b) lifestyle. He added: “According to longevity literature, our genes determine 35% of our longevity. Since we did not choose our parents and grand parents we have no control over the 35% of our life span. That had already been established by the time we were born. However, we can do a lot with the remaining 65%. We are informed that each stick of cigarette can take away seven minutes of our lives. So it is either you puff it and give away some part of your life or you ignore the “pass jot” invitation of your friends and live a little longer.”
Alcohol, as Mr Ekpu admonished, if it must be taken, must be done in moderation. “Soft drinks with high sugar content is dangerous. High sugar consumption can lead to diabetes and severe tooth problems, we are told. Doctors also advise that we reduce calorie intake, cut out red meat, go for fruits, vegetables and plenty water. Besides, regular and vigorous exercise is said to be a long life tonic. Above all these, most people accept that there are some unseen fingers in people’s lives: God. So fast, pray and give alms and you may live longer than you would have.”
He went further to attribute the state of healthcare as another factor, saying: “In some of the advanced countries there are geriatric centres which take care of old people. These centres are equipped to take care of the many ailments that afflict old people, all at the same time. Experts in various fields of medicine and well-being are on hand to attend to them. In Nigeria, there is only one known geriatric centre established at the University of Ibadan by Chief Tony Anenih a few years ago. That we have only one such facility in a huge country like Nigeria speaks to our pathetic lack of care for aged people who have given the best part of their adult lives for the betterment of their country.”
Early last year TheNEWS visited Chief Ayo Adebanjo, an Afenifere top kick who is now 91 years old in his Lekki home where a threadmill was stationed by the entrance. The man whose chest still looks like a barn door walks with the agility of a wrestler. His wits have not eluded him, neither has forgetfulness set in. TheNEWS confronted him with the question of longevity and its factors.
He replied: “I don’t know why God bestowed on me the grace. It is not that I am that righteous, I appreciate that and I know that it is only the grace of God that I am still here up till today. You exercise, you eat well and without the grace of God you are zero and that is the cause of the celebration, to appreciate God for his mercies.”
The magazine probed further by putting a metaphysical dimension of whether, as an Ijebu elder, belonging to the Ogboni confraternity could have contributed to his long life. Chief Adebanjo, like a soldier dodging bullets, replied:
“It is the grace of God. Nothing more. My father lived up to 105, so the people always say longevity is what papa left for me. There is nothing to worry you, I have no security here, go to my village I don’t have any security. Concerned people would say papa, these people are bad oo, I would say I don’t know anybody, I don’t have contract with anybody, I have not cheated anybody. What you cannot say in the public don’t say it in the private.” We learnt you love exercises. Would that be part of the secret? The journalists asked. His response was that if you do exercise, eat well, sleep well , that is an attempt to live good, “without the grace of God, you cannot live long.”
Is he afraid of death? This medium probed further. He fired back that he scorned death since 1996 when he was 68, when he and others were arrested after the death of Kudirat Abiola. They were arrested as her alleged killers! The security people took them to Adeniji Adele Police Station. Adebanjo narrated further: “I was coming from office, I took my suit, and they were asking us about Abiola. Abiola is not my cup of tea. I was shocked. Was it because of Abiola’s wife that you arrested us? I asked. Whether we like it or not Nigerians voted for Abiola. One man has no right to annull the results…”
Then what was Professor Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate’s position on the matter? He was 85 on 13 July. When he was 80 five years ago, TheNEWS asked him then whether there were any genetic reasons for his long life, or he simply took (and still takes) his healthcare very seriously? The interview was published in the hard copy of 21 July 2014. His response: “I don’t know why. But I must say I’m not a health fanatic— I don’t jog. When I see people jog, they look ridiculous. From time to time, I go into the bush just to get away from people really, not for the purpose of exercise. I have no idea. It’s just luck.”
Shortly after his 80th birthday, Henry Miller (December 26, 1891 – June 7, 1980), an American writer, wrote a beautiful essay on the subject of aging and the key to living a full life. It was (as contained in brainpickings.org), published in 1972 in an ultra-limited-edition chapbook titled On Turning Eighty (public library), alongside two other essays. Miller begins by considering the true measure of youthfulness:
“If at eighty you’re not a cripple or an invalid, if you have your health, if you still enjoy a good walk, a good meal (with all the trimmings), if you can sleep without first taking a pill, if birds and flowers, mountains and sea still inspire you, you are a most fortunate individual and you should get down on your knees morning and night and thank the good Lord for his saving’ and keeping’ power. If you are young in years but already weary in spirit, already on the way to becoming an automaton, it may do you good to say to your boss — under your breath, of course — “Fuck you, Jack! You don’t own me!” … If you can fall in love again and again, if you can forgive your parents for the crime of bringing you into the world, if you are content to get nowhere, just take each day as it comes, if you can forgive as well as forget, if you can keep from growing sour, surly, bitter and cynical, man you’ve got it half licked.”
He later adds:
“I have very few friends or acquaintances my own age or near it. Though I am usually ill at ease in the company of elderly people I have the greatest respect and admiration for two very old men who seem to remain eternally young and creative. I mean [the Catalan cellist and conductor] Pablo Casals and Pablo Picasso, both over ninety now. Such youthful nonagenarians put the young to shame. Those who are truly decrepit, living corpses, so to speak, are the middle-aged, middleclass men and women who are stuck in their comfortable grooves and imagine that the status quo will last forever or else are so frightened it won’t that they have retreated into their mental bomb shelters to wait it out.”
Like George Eliot, who, as the website puts it, so poignantly observed the trajectory of happiness over the course of human life, Miller extols the essential psychoemotional supremacy of old age: “At eighty I believe I am a far more cheerful person than I was at twenty or thirty. I most definitely would not want to be a teenager again. Youth may be glorious, but it is also painful to endure…I was cursed or blessed with a prolonged adolescence; I arrived at some seeming maturity when I was past thirty. It was only in my forties that I really began to feel young. By then I was ready for it. (Picasso once said: “One starts to get young at the age of sixty, and then it’s too late.”) By this time I had lost many illusions, but fortunately not my enthusiasm, nor the joy of living, nor my unquenchable curiosity.”
Two years later, the website went further, Miller would come to articulate this with even more exquisite clarity in contemplating the meaning of life, but here he contradicts Henry James’s assertion that seriousness preserves one’s youth and turns to his other saving grace — the capacity for light-heartedness as an antidote to life’s often stifling solemnity: “Perhaps the most comforting thing about growing old gracefully is the increasing ability not to take things too seriously. One of the big differences between a genuine sage and a preacher is gaiety. When the sage laughs it is a belly laugh; when the preacher laughs, which is all too seldom, it is on the wrong side of the face.”
Miller went further: “My motto has always been: “Always merry and bright.” Perhaps that is why I never tire of quoting Rabelais: “For all your ills I give you laughter.” As I look back on my life, which has been full of tragic moments, I see it more as a comedy than a tragedy. One of those comedies in which while laughing your guts out you feel your inner heart breaking. What better comedy could there be? The man who takes himself seriously is doomed…There is nothing wrong with life itself. It is the ocean in which we swim and we either adapt to it or sink to the bottom. But it is in our power as human beings not to pollute the waters of life, not to destroy the spirit which animates us.”
That man celebrates over 70 has its own symbolism. This is because, in ages past, homo sapiens lived longer. An example was Methuselah. Said to have died at the age of 969, he lived the longest of all figures mentioned in the Bible. According to the Book of Genesis, Methuselah was the son of Enoch, the father of Lamech, and the grandfather of Noah.
Man has come to dread the aging process because of the challenges it brings. The picture Ekpu painted in his Guardian was scary! “When you get to age 70, as I did recently, you realise that it is not easy to be old. You can still carry yourself with admirable grace but not with much vigour. You are no longer able to go up the stairs in a lunatic flight as you used to do when you were young. That quickness of foot and body is gone, gone forever and can never be reversed or retrieved or regained. That expressway speed, that vivacious quickness in movement is gone, never to return. You now walk with an economy of effort, you move with glacial slowness and if you have a beer belly in front of you, you walk with a portly waddle. You don’t have anymore the envied body of a dancer.”
Ekpu added that the irony is that 70 brings a sense of urgency to your thoughts, the urgency to complete projects earlier started, urgency to bring ideas and plans to fruition because you have reached 70, the proverbial three score and ten. Three score and ten, according to him, seems to be regarded as the dividing line between living and dying even though many people don’t reach it and some people exceed it. But ironically, as he argued, this is no longer the age for urgency because age and its deadly claws have taken urgency away from your steps, your voice and your actions.
“Your sense of urgency at 70 is stymied by the drawbacks of age and if a disease accompanies it your urgency is broken into small steps. You walk slowly, gingerly, sometimes with a walking stick to stabilize your steps. The swagger is gone, the spring is out. Your feet can step on an ant but may not kill it. There is a reluctant dragging of the feet, an uncoordinated choreography of distressed movement. This is the age of “where are my glasses” when they are just sitting right there on your nose. I hope I haven’t made life at 70 look very dreadful.
In the language of the street and aviation, we often say that old people have already collected their boarding passes and are only waiting for their flights to be called. They are at the departure lounge and have no idea whether their flight will depart in time or will be delayed. This flight is never cancelled and will never be cancelled because it is not organized by uncaring and irresponsible Nigerian airlines. It is organized by Someone who is eminently efficient: God.”
That is one of the reasons that Pa Charles Olumo, Agbako for style in the movies, who turned 94 recently (he was still going to the gym, even at 80) was bitter that if he should die and some crocodile mourners come to his funeral to speak high voltage English, his ghost would come from the other world to deliver a blow to their solar plexus! He went ballistic: “I have told them, and I’m also using this opportunity to inform them, that nobody should come and shed crocodile tears at my burial. If they do, my spirit will flog them, because when I needed their help, they were nowhere to be found…I have been sick but thank God I’m back on my feet. My ailment was heart-related and after series of test, I was told that my heart was weak, coupled with the fact that I often forgot things, so I was placed on drugs that must be used to avoid any crisis’. When asked if he underwent any surgery, he said, “no, the doctors said there was no way they could perform surgery on me. They said the drugs were very essential and must not be skipped. Though, I was operated upon when I had urinary ailment recently, I’m free from that now.”