We live in a generation whose lifespan is half that of our fathers—and mothers, of course.
The poem is powerful.
We dared to think... that (he'd) live to comb grey hair. But like his
father, he had every gift but length of years.
The Irish poet William Butler Yeats crafted this thought-provoking, all time relevant poem almost a century ago. Yet it remains powerful in our years, the 21st Century, confirming, again, that poetry lives across space and time.
We dared to think…that (he’d) live to comb grey hair. It is a lament for a friend, it seems, a model or a brilliant, important person who people wanted to live long, to share his knowledge for decades. Yet he died young.
The society in which Yeats lived held grey hair as some kind of honour, the ideal, and the norm—what everybody expects: that a person should live long and the visible symbol of old age being grey hair which is easy to comb; meaning that the abnormal is to die young before growing grey hair.
The man mourned in the poem, like his father, was talented and died young. Sad that people we want to live long, die young.
Long life is an honour not just to one person but to society because it benefits from wisdom that comes with age. Or put in Yeats’ language, the wisdom that comes with grey hair.
Isn’t the world full of people we wished to live long, to comb grey hair, so that we enjoy their talent for decades?
Consider Bright Nkhata, Allan Namoko, Daniel Kachamba, Robert Fumulani, Du Chisiza and, well, it is a long list, this one. But we can add Professor Kay Chiromo (that extraordinary artist), Nixon Khembo (that brilliant academic who died before completing his PhD), and Charles Severe (that broadcaster and drama guru).
Do you want us to add university professors who have died? We wish Professor John Chiphangwi was with us to see the growth of the University of Malawi's College of Medicine.
What about brilliant politicians who passed on, leaving behind unsolved puzzles? We wish they had lived long. We wish they had grown old to comb grey hair. We wish Du Chisiza had lived long to keep writing, directing and performing great plays.
We ask: If Du was living today, what play would he have written on homosexuality? If Bob Marley was living today, what songs would he have written about the war in Iraq? What would he have sung about the Tsunami that killed nearly half a million people in Asia? What would he have said about Africa?
We really wish they had lived long, grown old to comb grey hair. But life isn’t what we wish. Often, it is what we don’t wish to happen.
We wish all parents lived long to raise their children. But sometimes—perhaps often nowadays--it does not work that way. I have attended burials of young people in recent months, young men survived by wives and children. I have known about young men and women who have died, leaving children hopeless; children gazing at the sky, a symbol of nothingness, a blank future.
Now stories about life can never be impersonal for they are about all of us, about our parents, brothers and sisters and everybody else.
I feel blessed to have both my parents living. My father, Willias Nkolokosa, a great primary school teacher is 77 while my mother, Anne, is 74. They have lived to comb grey hair, to see their children grow up with the last born, yours truly, being 34.
My paternal grandparents died in old age. My grandfather, Desert Nkolokosa, was the first Malawian Seventh Day Adventist pastor, preaching in Makanjira, Mangochi, in 1939 after his missionary work in Zaire where my father and his elder brother, Stewart, were born.
My maternal grandmother died in January this year in real old age. The pastor who led the service challenged us all to live up to 90 years and we laughed in disbelief. We know we may not live that long because we are in days that long life is not fashionable.
You may have a similar story or a different one. Perhaps you lost parents long time ago and you don’t know how pleasant it is to have them grow old. It may be that you don’t know what it means to have a father or a mother because, as was the case with Harod Takomana, he was two years old when his father, 26, died in a road accident.
Such is the pain of life. It is not what we wish it to be, always. We dared to think... that (he'd) live to comb grey hair. But like his father, he had every gift but length of years.
Consider yourself lucky if your parents have grown old to comb grey hair. The honour you can give them is to comb their grey hair: buy them a comb. But they need one after a bath, so buy them soap and pails. Well, in the rural corners, they bath after lunch, so make sure they have food and blankets at night.
This is combing our old folks’ grey hair. It is easy, just as easy as combing the real grey hair. (I know how easy it is because dad used to ask me to comb his grey hair.) It is a source of blessings as well, one of which is long life for ourselves that we may live long to comb our grey heads.