VICTOR KALALANDA, Lusaka
HE’s reclining on a king-size bed, covered in a thick, warm blanket and holding up his head against a pillow. He’s sightless but he appears to stare at the ceiling above. The scene one sees sets affection astir. It’s as if the man knows that he has tasted the melon of long life. He is 100 years old.
His name is Amon Chiombe and, admirably, living in a country where there are more youths than any other age group. A centenarian like him is the only diamond among pebbles, leading a life of Riley as his selfless family caters to the incessant whims of old age.
With his late wife, Meleby, this is a man that bore into his quiver 13 arrows of children, whom mortality has now scaled down to nine. They were nothing short of arrows, indeed, for they have weaved a nest of a home for him in Chelston, Lusaka.
According to his national registration card, which only shows his birth year as was the practice in pre-colonial Zambia, Amon’s life began in a Northern Province village in Mporokoso in 1918, the year the late Nelson Mandela was born, when the first World War also ended.
Mporokoso makes him great since it’s in that distant area where he established a business that would enable him to send his late son Robinson to Makerere University in Uganda. The business was known for second-hand clothes and foodstuffs, but its association with a famous university underscores how hard-working Amon was in his heyday.
How he started his business in the village is a story tied with the mining-related jobs on the Copperbelt in the 1940s. Like every other ambitious young man of his time, Amon found himself leaving Mporokoso with his wife.
“He migrated to the Copperbelt, Mufulira in particular. That’s where he went to look for a job,” his daughter Beatrice elaborates for him, since it’s hard for even keen hearers to get the old man’s words.
And though today his face and its skin have shrunk and wrinkled, one readily conceives veneration for this man because he had to cycle a distance of miles from Mporokoso to Mufulira, simply to prospect for affluence on the Copperbelt.
Though he never got a job in the mines, Copperbelt would in another sense prove auspicious for him and his wife, as he was employed by a bakery, where he rose to the post of supervisor.
He didn’t have children yet but his far-sighted wife was unremittingly saving the income his job generated, up until it had attained considerable scale to start life in Mporokoso.
“He gave his earnings to his wife and she would keep them. Little did he know that it was piling up,” narrates Beatrice, a businesswoman.
With the income well accumulated, the couple soon left the Copperbelt after compelling conviction that Amon’s aging mother in Mporokoso needed his care most in her twilight.
“From what I gather, my father was a very generous man. He took care of his in-laws and his mother until they died. That has been a trend and I think it has given him the blessing for his children to also look after him,” states his 53-year-old daughter.
Upon arrival in Mporokoso, Amon contrived the very business that his entire family would come to fall back on, and also help him send a child to an elite university in Uganda.
“He started dealing in second-hand clothes before he built a shop [as one of few Africans] in Mporokoso. It was an 11-room shop made of burnt bricks. Because of it, we never lacked anything in the house,” says the daughter with nostalgia.
Fascinatingly, moreover, the shop remains intact to this day, only that the family recently sold it.
Such is the story of the workaholic and gracious man that now spends his life only slumbering on his bed and deservedly waiting for breakfast, lunch, supper and intermediate light meals as days pass by.
What he did for his 13 children has positively caught up with him: “My father was generous. Even in his shop, whatever he ate, he left for us and made sugar solution for us to eat,” emotionally recalls his son, Kabwe Chiombe, who is also a businessman.
Kabwe’s father was the government hero that would even go out of his way to make donations of money and foodstuffs to UNIP officials whenever then President Kenneth Kaunda was in Northern Province on a working visit.
From his toil came sweet that fed into the education fees of his children, never at any time wanting them to be manual labourers, until he saw them proceed to the cities of the country. He ultimately joined them with his wife in the late 1980s owing to failing health.
“My elder brother visited him and found that he was critically ill. That’s how he was brought here for treatment. But after treatment, we decided that mum and dad should live with us because dad himself complained that life was becoming difficult in the village,” says Beatrice, who has grown so attached to her father that she has given up any intentions to get married.
Together with other siblings, Beatrice agreed to keep their parents in Lusaka against all odds.
“As a child who was brought up by him and saw his love, I personally rejected any suggestions to take my father to a hospice,” Beatrice’s brother, Kabwe, says.
At the age of 86, Amon’s wife succumbed to a death that weighed down heavily on him, leaving the man without choice but to find comfort in his children and several grandchildren.
In terms of diet, the United Church of Zambia adherent, who is visited monthly by church members, surprisingly shares the usual eating lifestyle that includes beef, chicken and vegetables, unlike former President Kaunda, 94, who explores the vegetarian path.
“I love bread and tea with milk,” Amon says in a wobbling voice, teasingly adding that “give me nshima right now or else I will kill myself!”
But his family points out that they have seen him survive this long because of God, a non-alcoholic life, a forgiving heart, consumption of large amounts of water and indeed taking prolonged hours of sleep.
Since he can no longer see and can barely bath by himself, the Chiombes have some employees that help them attend to the needs of their father.
Despite the age, providence has ensured that their non-institutionalised parent has never been plagued by illnesses like hypertension or prostate cancer.
It has certainly taken the personal sacrifice and generosity of the larger family to be unceasingly committed to the life of a 100-year-old Zambian.
As Dr Moses Changala, who is a University of Zambia expert on gerontology, which is the scientific study of old age, says, people like Amon are “an asset to the country. We should be able to celebrate the longevity that they have attained”.
VICTOR KALALANDA, Lusaka