Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Forever Young

I have a nifty way of dealing with ageing: I don’t look in mirrors.
          I find that not seeing the ravages of time on my essentially youthful physiognomy enables me to live in a pleasant form of ignorance, though shaving is—I freely admit—a bit of a problem. The only danger lies in catching the occasional glimpse of an old guy in the reflection of a shop window, but I can usually manage to convince myself that it wasn’t actually me.

          I live in fear of being offered a seat on the bus.  So far, I have managed to avoid that by wearing an expression of malice as I travel from Crystal Palace to Croydon. Old ladies and children avoid me, and even dogs tend to sniff someone else’s trousers. But there is one bubble-pricking threat that cannot be avoided.
          When I lived in northern Kenya during the late eighties, my job was to get to know the scattered people of the Maasai who had been cut off from their fellows in Maasai Mara. My wife and I travelled on a Honda trail bike, negotiating such dangers as “black cotton” mud, sand and fist-sized gravel roads. We covered a lot of ground and met lots of people in remote areas.

          One important person we hadn’t managed to find was called Chief Henry Ole Taye.  He was the olaiguinini, or leader, of his age group of warriors. Every time we went in search of him, he had just left on his own motorcycle. He was reputed to be six foot seven, and several years into being an elder of the tribe.  In Maasai culture, as in much of Africa, the older you are, the better. Sort of the exact opposite of life in Britain.
          One day we were leaving the outpost of Dol Dol when I heard another motorcycle in the rutted road behind us. I was driving carefully, since my wife had threatened to leave me if I dumped both of us onto the ground again. After all, she said, I was forty-two—too old to play Evel Knievel in the African bush. The other motorcycle had no silencer and was making a noise like a giant chainsaw. I didn’t dare turn to look.  The rider began beeping his horn, its silly little noise just audible above the roars of two motors. Assuming he wanted to get by, I hugged the left bank, risking spilling us onto the dust.  But the horn kept up.  I gave up and pulled over.

          The other bike parked in front of us, and an enormous man disentangled himself from the motorcycle the way a circus clown does from his toy bike. He removed his helmet.  I knew at once that this was the legendary Chief Henry. He approached with hand outstretched, clasping his ceremonial club under his elbow.
          I took off my helmet. Chief Henry stopped and looked at me.

          “My goodness,” he said, grinning to reveal the ceremonial gap in his front teeth, “You ARE a very old man.”

          I heard my wife beginning to snigger.
          “Thank you,” I told him.

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