Many Kenyans succumb to lifestyle diseases at relatively young ages — and celebrating one’s 90th birthday is no doubt a biological milestone. Former Attorney General Charles Njonjo recently turned 101. Njonjo, who is not on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, was born in the year Kenya became a Colony and went on to outlive all who were in Kenya’s first independence Cabinet. He joined that rare group of Kenyans enjoying their sunset years in the ‘90s Club. Others in this bracket include Kenya’s first Governor of the Central Bank and Head of Public Service Duncan Ndegwa who still plays a round of golf at 95. Muthoni Likimani, the first black Kenyan to run a PR agency called Noni’s Publicity, is 93 years old. But the mother of three has won other hats in her illustrious life: writer, broadcaster, radio and television producer, educationist and women rights activist. Former Vice President Moody Awori is 92.
The World Health Organisation pegs the average life expectancy in Kenya at 67. So, what made these Kenyans live so long? What diet and lifestyle habits helped them, or was it plain good old genetics?
Dr Borna Nyaoke-Anoke, a Kenyan physician and clinical researcher, argues that “Kenyans were living longer in the past as they had healthier dietary choices with less processed foods and were more physically active hence did not have as many non-communicable diseases such as diabetes type two, cancer or cardiovascular diseases which lead to higher mortality rates.”
James Mbugua, a city psychologist, argues increased knowledge and advanced technology has not helped matters considering many people hardly take their health seriously and instead opt for quick fixes in drugs.
Njonjo, for instance, has often mentioned keeping to a frugal diet of a cup of tea and two toasts of bread in the morning, and lots of fruits and vegetables at lunch and supper. He dispenses with nyama choma, preferring fish and other white meat. The former Constitutional Affairs minister is husband of Margret Bryson and father of three children — a lawyer, scientist and veterinary doctor. He also does occasional drink alcohol, but only a bottle of beer — strictly a cider.
In a previous interview, Njonjo, who remained a bachelor until he was 52, said: “I look after myself. I swim daily. I used to do 12 laps, now I do only seven. I also have a bicycle which I ride for 10 minutes daily, on top of the treadmill which I do for 10 minutes daily. I’m also careful about what I eat; I don’t eat nyama choma. I eat a lot of veggies.”
Being busy also counts. When he retired from public service, Njonjo immersed himself in business and won’t stop working unless “Maybe when I’m cremated. Otherwise I will wait until I cannot move a limb,” he said.
Besides lifestyle, Njonjo’s family is known to live long lives meaning genetics could also be at play as his father, Chief Josiah Njonjo was still strong when he was facing the Njonjo Commission of Inquiry in 1984. Njonjo was in his 60s, the father in the 80s.
Duncan Ndegwa, the former Central Bank of Kenyatta retired to his businesses and among his regimens is playing golf. He once said, “The way you are on the golf course, is the way you are in life. Without golf, my life would have been poorer. I have no regrets in activity spent in golf.”
Uncle Moody, the one-time “career assistant minister” became Vice President after the demise of Wamalwa Kijana at a London hospital in 2003. He and his 14 siblings have dominated politics, education, commerce, medicine, engineering, sports and academia, but the long life for the father of five can be pegged on among others; 30 press ups and floor exercises every morning. As he once explained, “I lie on my back and then I flip over until my feet touch the ground. Then I get up and do that again… 150 times.”
When asked about her longevity, Muthoni, a former beauty queen, who hardly sleeps beyond 4am said, “God has been kind to me. African food has also helped me remain strong. I eat uji made from three different types of millet and I don’t drink.”