Celebrating Life at 117

This is the story of my great grandmother, one of the oldest living people in the world.

When I was in primary school, my teacher asked the class who our heroes were. Most of the children named their favourite pop star or actor but I remember standing up and saying “My great grandmother Elizabeth, because she’s 103!”

The classroom went silent and all eyes were on me. “How is that even possible?” I was asked by a classmate. If you would have told me back then that I would be celebrating her 117th birthday, I would have asked the same question. But, 14 years later, we celebrated my great grandmother’s 117th birthday.

Elizabeth Gathoni Koinange is known to be one of the oldest living people in the world and has lived through both world wars, the colonisation of Kenya and its independence. She was the fifth wife of Senior Chief Koinange Wa Mbiyu, who played a great role in Kenya’s independence.

Africa is a big and diverse continent; each country bursting with stories to be told and each of them unique and important in their own right. I wanted to tell these stories to the world.

The journey began when I was doing an internship at the BBC. One of my senior colleagues advised me to attend a meeting about Creative Challenge – an annual competition within the BBC, where employees of any discipline at any level can pitch story ideas. That meeting was full of people listening to the commissioning editor announce the 2017 Creative Challenge theme… “Life Stories”. It was just then that a light bulb went off in my head: “Life at 117”.

I was excited to tell the story of my great grandmother who has lived far past the average life expectancy. It’s not often the gap between young and old is bridged, and not often do you get stories that connect millennials with older citizens, especially in Africa.

If there’s one thing that the whole world has in common, it is the stages of life – childhood, marriage, parenthood, work and old age. Even though it’s a commonality for most of us across the globe, just imagine how unique and unmatchable those five stages in life must be for every person in each generation.

When I found out that my story pitch had won the Creative Challenge, I was thrilled and soon began to plan the documentary. I researched into my family history and discovered stories I had never known.

When I told my great grandmother I wanted to do a documentary about her life, she was ecstatic. She always says that the world has left elderly people behind but she was delighted to learn that the BBC News teams would be with her to celebrate her 117th birthday.

My family was excited to welcome the crew into their home, to be able to tell my grandmother’s story – about life at 117 – to global audiences. She’s excited that people in places as far away and as culturally different as Japan and Brazil will be able to watch her story.

Everyone agrees my grandmother is a phenomenal woman. From her strength to her love and faith for the family, she has always taught me to stay focused and pursue my dreams. To love all and to forgive. My great grandmother is simply inspiring and has had a unique life that is going to capture the attention of the world.

Celebrating Life at 117 aired on BBC World News and BBC World Service Radio on 15 April and 16 April respectively. – Priscilla Ng’ethe