The gray is coming, and the true curse of old age is not age. But leaving the trenches without a plan.
There were two other men at the table, seated across each other. The younger man, he was 66, was American. He was tall and skinny, with aging flaky skin and a captivating glint in his eyes. The second one was Kenyan. He was three years older, much shorter, and had a slightly fuller frame than his friend.
They were friends.
In fact, they had been friends for a long time, but the last time they had seen each other before that week was in September 1971. When the Cold War was as cold as ever, and Jomo was still the president of the republic. As they had walked the halls of the University of Nairobi, Amin had just taken power in Uganda. Mobutu had just renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was now Zaire, named after the Congo River “nzera”, the river that swallows all rivers.
It had been 45 years since.
The Kenyan man had tuna, and the American had steak.
In the background, a random collection of music played. The lighting seemed to flicker with it, and yet it wasn’t. Its warmth as quiet and calm as a sunset in the wild. Its shadows allowing the waiting staff, dressed in beige, to melt away.
Jazz became benga, and then rhumba, and then some weird Afro-fusion. And then it looped back. But no one seemed to notice.
The two men ate in silence at first. They’d seen each other more in that previous week than they had in four and a half decades. A lot of things had changed, and for a moment, they both wondered how they had been friends.
They had been in their 20s. Flush with ambition and innocence, and determined to conquer the world. They were hot in their loins and careless in their debauchery. One, the American, had a pet python called Amos. Amos died at some point during their friendship; killed by a mob who spotted it after it sneaked out of its cage.
Amos died a brutal death. His murderers hang him on a fence, so that his owner saw him dead before he even knew he had sneaked out.
But then the two took it in stride, and walked to buy another Amos the next day.
Over dinner, the American, after seeing the University of Nairobi for the first time in four decades, laments over its decline. We all nod in agreement, although only one other person at this table of five understands what it once was.
In 1970, this Kenyan was one of only 10.9 million Kenyans alive. So few of them were in the only university in the country that for a time, they each had two rooms. One to sleep in and one to study in. Within three decades, there would be 28.7 million Kenyans, and today, there are 46.5 million. The Kenyan man had contributed to six of these new Kenyans, and they had in turn, added nine more to the numbers.
Of the two men, one became a teacher and one became a banker. In those four decades, their careers had soared. One had seen the world and one had built generations of future leaders. They had cruised those years without much thought, until the calendar crossed 50 and then 60, and a life away from these trenches stared back. Most men, the story goes, wither away after retirement.
Statistically, the Kenyan on this table had already outlived the life expectancy of a Kenyan. If you were alive at independence, and he was, you could expect to live 48.8 years. It was a decent life expectancy, as sixty years before, wave after wave of epidemics had wiped away entire bloodlines. Even getting to 35 years was sheer luck. In 1970, when they met, it was 52 years. In 2012, we crossed the 60 year threshold. Today, it is around 65, depending on whose numbers you find.
The true curse of old age, one man opines thoughtfully, is that you are waiting for death. Most people retire to die, and if I’m gonna go, I’m going in a super nova.
But there’s no super nova. There’s silence, and creaky bones.
The true curse of old age is that you can’t make money or shake a leg anymore. Your liver is not what it used to be, so even going through that in a drunken haze is out of the question. Your body is withering, as is your mind, as none have properly evolved to be optimal past the mid-40s. Your ancestors never really needed to, or could, live to 40 even. If a disease didn’t get them, an enemy would. Or a birth gone awry.
If you did survive, you had an entire economy built to see you age. The agrarian economy, with children as your retirement plan. You owned all the land, and they had to till it while the blood was still hot in their veins and their hair was still a mat of black. Like you had.
Wanderlust was allowed for everyone but the lastborn male. He couldn’t even build a house of his own because he would inherit his mother’s. His single most important role was to take care of his parents; and to marry a wife who understood that. And didn’t mind living in the same house as her mother-in-law, who might just turn out to be immortal.
But then war and disease came; one man’s self-destruct button and the other nature’s finest weapon. Then towns grew north of the coastline, and there were taxes to be paid and places to be seen. Other people’s wars to fight in, and reserves to be occupied. Suddenly aging was not as cool as it once was. You worked until you keeled over and died, unless you had a true blesser. Or unless something struck you off first.
When these two men met in 1970, two different cultures clashed. One had had three centuries to make something of itself, and other was less than five decades old. It had been something before that, but that had since disappeared in a sea of new religion, and a new way of life.
It was good, actually, to be a budding adult then. Most of those adults retired at the turn of the millennium, having stayed with one employer throughout their working lives. They were the lucky lot, because unemployment was low and formal jobs were more than the Kenyans who could take them.
In the background, the loop starts again. It’s the same jazz song, every seven songs.
The only other would-be retiree at this table, the Kenyan’s wife, doesn’t want to quit. To do what exactly, she chimes in when the American asks. What’s on the other side of this working life?
A lot of things might have changed in Kenya’s social dynamics but not that women outlive their husbands. But sometimes there are more older men than women, in absolute numbers. It seems like a contradiction at first, until you think about it. Women tend to marry men who are older than them, so a good number are widowed while they are young. A study in 2003 found the average age of women receiving pension to be 46.5 years. It wasn’t that they were cheating the system, it was that their husbands had died and left them to inherit the retirement benefits.
But there’s that fear. Of what happens when the true curse of old age happens.
There are only two people in their 20s at this table, and in another three decades, they will be in their 50s. But there’s that worry that there are more of us now, and less of everything but bills. There are people to bless and plots to buy. There are concerts to pay for and shamba managers to MPESA money to. Landlords refusing to take exposure as rent and government budgets piling more taxes on debauchery. There’s too much to do, and three decades is a long time.
But there’s four decades between a friendship here, and bad music in the background, and a nostalgia about Amos.
The men at the table are withering. We know it, they know it. Their bones creak these days. The gray is becoming more pronounced. A cold takes slightly longer to heal, and they have trouble seeing. And learning new things. Frankly, on a cold Monday morning, they would rather snuggle in until the sun is up there. And they do, because they can.
Work came and went. As did girlfriends and heartbreaks. Bills and more bills. Governments changed but taxes didn’t. A small deduction, chopped away every month for three decades, built a small war chest for both of them. They still hit Starlight when the bands played, and got late with rent.
But those are the details.
As they walked to the snake park, to find another Amos, age hadn’t mattered. There was a python to be bought, one says as he reaches out for the wine, and 2016 could as well have been 10, 000 years from then. It’s not that it hadn’t mattered, the other adds, it’s that it simply didn’t exist. Old age was a concept. The gray was coming.
The gray was coming. Those words. Those words stuck.
One day we would all blink and we would be old. Electric Avenue would still reek of lost dreams and stolen kisses. A man would still detour a girl who had said yes, already, to find six-week-old chicken, tossed and turned in suspicious oil before the romp. A lot of things would still happen. But the gray would be here.
The music had faded away, quietly. And the light hadn’t stopped flickering. It never had, but it felt like it always was.
A day after that, someone said the same thing. In different words. Spoke loftily of a future that seems like it might as well be in a dystopian film. Where we might as well replace elections with Hunger Games, and watch them from our balconies as we sip regret. Or elect to die instead of listening to the old bones sing.
Good men and women will come and go, she said. And bad ones too. Some of them will fight to stay on, afraid of the abyss of leaving the trenches. The gray doesn’t mark its victims, it comes for everyone. She said it, but she might as well have sang it.
You might not feel it but in the time it has taken you to read this far, the gray has sneaked up on you a bit. You’ve grown older, and 2030 will be here soon. And 2040. There’s a future with you, and one without. In the years to come, as the gray comes, you will become either fine wine or an illicit brew, or both. It won’t happen in a day. Or a year. It will happen one after the next.
The music starts again. The lights flicker. Or seem to.
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One story is good,
till Another is told.