Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Enjoying a Long Life

In a country where the average life expectancy is 47 years, one man claims to be 115.
By Hafizullah Gardesh

When he was a young man, Guldin says he was known far and wide for his physical strength. Today, nearly 100 years later, he is once again acquiring a measure of fame - this time, by claiming to be 115-years-old.


If true, it would not only make him possibly the oldest person in Afghanistan, but, in all likelihood, the oldest man in the world.


What makes his longevity all the more remarkable is that life expectancy for men in Afghanistan today is 47 years. According to statistics compiled by the United Sates, only three per cent of the population is over age 65.


In a country where the elderly are honoured, Guldin receives special respect.


From his bed of tattered, threadbare blankets in a dim room, not far from the village of Adam Khil on the eastern border of Afghanistan where he was born more than a century ago, Guldin reflects on his life. His strength long gone, he is a wizened old man with a deeply creased face. Although his eyes have lost their brightness and he says he can barely see, his hearing is good, his mind is sharp and his memory clear.


He remembers working as a gardener for the former king, Amir Habibullah Khan, who ruled Afghanistan from 1901 to 1919. “I was working in Bala Hisar and at that time there weren’t any cars, there were just elephants. Amir Habibullah Khan had 10 wives,” he said.


He also recalled how he and his father worked for a local landowner named Haji Khan and supplemented their income by selling firewood gathered from the nearby mountains.


"I brought 70 kilograms from the mountains on my shoulders and sold it for 2.5 afghanis, and then bought corn," he recalled.


Life, he said, was extremely hard. “I don't want any Muslim to pass such a hard time as I passed through," he said.


He attributed his longevity to never using tobacco or drinking tea. "When people drink tea, I laugh at them," he said.


Guldin said he was married twice - once to his uncle’s widow and later to a young woman through an arranged marriage. He spent much of life in poverty, however. “Fifteen or 16 of my children died," he recalled. He said he has four married sons and apologised for not being able to remember the number of his grandchildren.


He said in his youth he traveled around the country but always on foot. He said it took 10 days to travel from Kabul to Turkistan in the north, and seven days from Nangarhar to Ghazni.


While it’s impossible to verify Guldin’s claim, many in his village believe he’s as old as he says he is.


Mohammad Sulaiman, a resident of the region who claims to be 94, said that Guldin is the oldest person around. "When I was just eight, Guldin was a strong man and famous for his strength,” Sulaiman said.


Another villager, Wali Mohammad, claims that he’s 110. "I can't say the exact age of Guldin, but I am sure he is older than me," he said.


Others in Afghanistan have also managed to beat the odds and live to a ripe old age.


Mohammad Sherif, a resident of the Kherkhana district of Kabul, said he’s happy to have the chance now to care for his 85-year-old mother.


The way Sherif sees it, parents are dedicated to their children's happiness and safety, so when parents grow old, it is the duty of children to care for them. “We should serve them the way they served us,” he said.


Sherif said the Koran teaches that “a Muslim should serve his father and mother because the satisfaction of God and the prophet is in the satisfaction of the parents. If they do not forgive us, then God will not forgive us,” he said.


Nadia, 80, who lives in Kabul, said her heart would break if she could no longer she her children and grandchildren. She rejects the idea of placing the elderly in retirement homes.


She can’t imagine how children could put their aging parents in such facilities, saying that by doing so they are treating “their father and mother [like] sewage.”


As for her long life, she said simply that it was a gift from God. “Age, sickness and health all are in the hands of God,” she said. “They are not in the hands of humans.”


Hafizullah Gardesh is an editor and trainer with IWPR.


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