Is Moloko the world's oldest person?

By Time of article published Jul 30, 2005

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By Christina Gallagher

At 131 years old Moloko Temo can be forgiven for not remembering when her children were born or when she was married. But ask what her favourite sweet is and she will say loudly: "XXX mints!"

The mints swish between Temo's three remaining teeth as she poses for a camera she cannot see. It has been 54 years since her eyesight failed, but her hearing and speech are still going strong. So is her sense of humour.

"If you are far away I can't hear you, but if you are close I can hear. But don't shout!" she says.

If Temo was born in 1874 she is almost certainly the oldest person in the world. But so far The Guinness Book of Records has yet to recognise her status. According to the book, the world's oldest person is a a mere 115-year-old Dutchwoman.

In 1988 Temo received an identity book from the Department of Home Affairs that says her year of birth had been determined by piecing together what she told them was happening when she was a child. Specifically, she gave the disused name of a hospital near her home.

She celebrates her birthday on July 4, a date decided by people in the community who say it was befitting to honour her on US Independence Day since she would now have the freedom to celebrate a birthday.

Home affairs says that people without proper identity documents require a certificate from the department of health to determine their age.

It is 9am. Temo gets herself out of bed and crawls on her hands and knees down a dark hallway to the lounge. It is a brisk morning and, with no electricity for the past two weeks, there is little to keep her warm as she sits on the cold concrete floor waiting for someone to bring her porridge.

Four months ago Temo fell off the front step of her house while walking with the aid of her cane. Her family says the 10cm step was too high for her to mount.

This week, Absa donated a wheelchair and, when she was asked to pose sitting in it, she tried to hoist herself up but reluctantly let herself be assisted.

Once she sat down, she was given marshmallows to soothe her, which she glided into the space where her front teeth used to be.

In her head, Temo lives in a simpler time. She is not aware of Aids and apartheid because they are new concepts to her. Temo says she never met a white person until this interview.

Asked whether she knew what Aids was, she kept repeating: "Ace. Ace. What is that?"

Temo voted in last year's presidential election but the story goes that, when asked for whom she wanted to vote, since she couldn't see the ballot, she said: "Mandela."

It was another vote for the ANC. Her family says she doesn't really know who he is, but knows that he was the first black president of South Africa.

When asked who the present president is she says: "Mandela Mbeku."

In Temo's long, long life, she has lived in only three houses. Before moving to Mohodi, a rural town 40km outside of Polokwane, Limpopo, she lived on a farm that was then tribal land and was segmented by local chiefs.

"I used to herd cows, goats and take care of my kids," she says. "I never went to school because there was no school then."

Her youngest daughter, Evelyn, is 79, and her primary care-giver. If Temo's date of birth is correct, it means that Temo was 55 when Evelyn was born.

"In those years, people waited to have kids. You took care of yourself before. It was possible to start having kids at 40 years old," she explains.

Evelyn recalls that Temo was a good mother who never had to discipline her children: "She never used to give us a hard time. My mom taught us chores so that we could survive by ourselves."

Sabilo Maifo, Temo's son-in-law from another daughter, says he learnt how to be a man from his wife's mother.

"She said as a man of the family I need to take care of my family and go out to work. In those days people did not have cars, so the first thing she said to buy was a car...or a goat. Then it will show that you are a man."

Her great-great-grandchildren have not learnt that lesson.

They say there is not much they can learn from their great-great-grandmother since they have only known her as she is today.

"It is difficult to speak to her. Things are different now than when she was younger," says Obed Maifo (27), whose arm is covered in self-made tattoos and who translates for his elderly relative.

It is hard for Temo to remember special moments in her life. It is easy to get the impression that she just wants to live her life and not be questioned about her past.

She cannot remember when she was married or when her husband died. About her wedding, she says unemotionally: "I don't know. It was at night."

The only thing she offers about her husband was that he was in charge of the land they worked on. Temo is not the only super-senior in her area. She is a member of Limpopo's centenarians' club.

Tom Boya, former mayor of Daveyton and businessman who founded the organisation nine years ago, has seen its membership grow from 65 to 400 people.

"I wanted to do something for these people. These people have suffered unjustly. They built our roads and the Johannesburgs and Polokwanes of today, but what do they have to show for it? Poverty," he says.

Boya says that before he founded Centenarians, people in the province's rural communities used to think these extraordinarily old people were witches, but now, he says, these people have gained more respect from the community.

Temo says she doesn't understand why people make such a big deal about her age, but says she knows why she lived so long.

"I used to walk a lot and that kept me physically strong. There was nothing mobile in those days."

For example, when she lost her eyesight and wanted to see a doctor, she left her home at 2am and walked until 10pm the next evening to reach the nearest hospital. But by then there was nothing that could be done.

"I always eat pap, moroho (spinach) and milk that comes naturally from the cows," she says. She adds: "I don't believe I am the oldest person in the world. I would like to know how people know that. I think there are others older somewhere."

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