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An Island Discovers a Treasure

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

At first glance, there’s not much left of Elizabeth Israel.

Her leathered and furrowed skin sags from a frail, 90-pound frame. She hasn’t walked in a couple of years and went blind in November. From time to time, her sentences trail off.

But as she greeted a visitor in her simple plywood shack on a recent afternoon, her handshake was firm. She listened intently to the portable radio on her bed, as she does most days--"except when they’re talking nonsense,” she said. From her elegant appearance, it was clear that what her friends and neighbors say is true: She insists that her perfume, her hair and her earrings be just so.

With her neighbors translating, she reminisced in her native Cocoy dialect about what a “wicked boy” that Adolf Hitler was, about how rocky her only marriage was--coming so late in life, in 1925--and about the three grandsons she has outlived.

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All in all, not bad for a woman whose life has touched three centuries, who worked until she was 104 and who turned 125 in January.

In fact, Dominicans believe that Israel is the world’s oldest person.

Through a caring neighbor’s persistence and a local radio journalist’s conviction, this Caribbean island nation’s Roman Catholic archdiocese issued an official baptismal certificate just in time for Israel’s birthday, declaring that she was born Jan. 27, 1875. The document confirms an entry the neighbor unearthed in December in a tattered church registry, which recorded Israel’s baptism on Jan. 30 of that year.

Based on that certificate, Israel’s friends have submitted her name for inclusion in the next edition of the Guinness Book of World Records, which will be out in October. And since Sarah Knauss, the record holder listed in the latest edition, died Dec. 30 at the age of 119 in Allentown, Pa., Israel appears to have a good shot.

“It would be absolutely fantastic,” Neil Hayes, spokesman for Guinness World Records in London, said Friday of the Israel claim. Guinness researchers, he said, are reviewing her case and have asked her supporters for additional documentation, such as a marriage or birth certificate or a copy of the original page of the baptismal book.

If true, Hayes said, Israel would “break [Guinness’] record for the oldest living woman ever,” which is held by Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, who died at 122 on Aug. 4, 1997.

While Guinness awaits further evidence from Dominica, which Israel’s friends are confident they can gather, it has given temporary custody of the world’s-oldest record to Briton Eva Morris, 114, of Staffordshire. “But it’s something we’re keen for her [Israel] to break as well,” Hayes said.

The story of Israel, who is known to all of her neighbors as Ma Pampo but unknown, until recently, to most of her countrymen, goes beyond the record books. It is a tale of roots, national pride, human endurance and the lessons that such a long life can teach.

“I believe she is gifted, that her long life is by design,” said Dominican broadcaster Alexander Bruno, who used his knowledge of her dialect to help document Ma Pampo’s age and history. He considers her a treasured link to his people’s past.

“I believe she was placed here for an immaculate purpose, to teach us that we fuss and fight too much, that we go way too crazy about possessions,” Bruno said. “The simplicity of her life is the greatest lesson.”

Indeed, this daughter of a freed slave, who never knew her father and worked on a lime and coconut plantation for about 90 years for pennies a day, lives penniless in a blue clapboard shack that is as old as she is. Yet she is blessed by the love and charity of her neighbors.

“I’ve been taking care of Ma for way over 20 years now, and from the time I first knew her, I kept asking, ‘How old is Pampo?’ ” said neighbor Lucian Dasilver, who discovered Israel’s baptismal entry in one of the island’s many Catholic churches.

“She just told me she didn’t know. She could give me names, but no dates. About three years ago, I started searching the church records. I’d got to thinking, ‘What if she dies without us ever knowing just how old she was?’

“I searched and searched until I found it. When I saw the date, I couldn’t believe it. I told the girl at the presbytery, ‘No, that cannot be possible.’ ”

By way of perspective, in the year the records show Ma Pampo was born, Ulysses S. Grant was president of the United States, Pius IX was pope and Queen Victoria was on the British throne. The following year, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone--a device Ma Pampo has never owned.

Britain was a world power in 1875, and Dominica was part of its Leeward Islands colony--one of half a dozen federated islands where Fillian’s Almanac that year counted 27,178 residents. Among them: 14 clergymen, three medical men, two barristers, 40 teachers, 295 paupers and orphans, 32 prisoners and 11 nuns. The island’s 1875 exports included 185,587 pounds of cocoa, 21 casks of rum, 3,520 barrels of sugar and 185 1/4 hogsheads of lime juice.

Fifty years later, Ma Pampo married for the first and only time. It was 1925, the year the first aircraft--a seaplane--arrived at the island. The next plane wouldn’t come for another 18 years; it stuck in the mud upon landing and flipped over. That wasn’t much of a concern to Ma Pampo; she’s never been on a plane.

Visits to the Capital, 75 Years Apart

She has survived the bread and kerosene shortages of two world wars, the island’s sometimes violent struggle for independence, a coup and countless uprisings, although her clearest memory is of the chilling explosions from offshore naval battles during World War II.

During a century and a quarter on an island nation that has more citizens living overseas than it does at home, Ma Pampo never left. She has visited the capital--Roseau, an hour’s drive south of here--only twice, once to marry and again in January as a newfound national icon feted at the inauguration of the new prime minister.

Otherwise, Ma Pampo’s life was Picard Estate, one of dozens of Dominican plantations that symbolized the region’s struggle to put centuries of slavery behind it. She was, in fact, among the first generation of black Caribbean islanders truly born free.

Emancipation formally came to these British colonies in 1838, but most of the region’s historians say the slaves initially were free in name only. And broadcaster Bruno says that understanding Ma Pampo’s roots helps in understanding those of the region and of its people, including himself.

Bruno’s ancestors, like Ma Pampo’s parents, left Caribbean islands to the north soon after they were emancipated, searching for a new future on this lush, underpopulated and promising isle.

But when they arrived, they found they had few options. Among them: working on the British- and French-owned plantations for next to nothing. Ma Pampo, the eldest child of a single mother, started picking coconuts and limes at about age 13, she said in chats with Bruno, her neighbors and other recent visitors. Her starting salary: 2 cents a day.

“Their minds were set that they were subjects, that they shouldn’t challenge, that they shouldn’t ask about what had come before them,” said Bruno, 32, who is among the few younger Dominicans fluent in Cocoy, a northern Caribbean dialect that differs from the island’s home-grown patois.

Now, after dozens of long conversations at Ma Pampo’s bedside, Bruno said, “it’s as if her consciousness and mine have merged. I saw her as a last remaining link that we have as a people to our past.

“Through her, and the intensity I place on finding out about my culture after 300 years of slavery, I’ve come to the conclusion you need an equal amount of time to heal from slavery.”

In the decades that followed Ma Pampo’s first day on the job at Picard, she slowly rose to the position of forewoman, a post she held until she retired 21 years ago. She supervised a team of eight female pickers, setting their daily tasks and taking on a commanding presence that endures today.

“She’s a no-nonsense woman,” Bruno said. “She’s aware of everything. She smiles. She laughs. She tells me everything she’s heard on the radio. She knows who won the [recent parliamentary] election. She knows who she voted for last month. She knows she’s 125.”

Neighbor Dasilver said it’s always been that way through the decades she has known Ma Pampo. The 49-year-old single mother of three recalled how Ma Pampo helped her, making sure that her children ate and were washed and groomed while Dasilver was at work.

Dasilver credits her neighbor’s longevity to a simple lifestyle and to diet: “She was only married once,” Dasilver said, “and she said it was a very difficult marriage. So she just forgot about love after that. So the way I see it, she was never harassed again.”

And she still eats well, maintaining her lifelong diet of dumplings, yams, beans, fish and meat. She insists that she has never consumed alcohol. She used to smoke, but it was just a pipe, and that was nearly a century ago, she said.

Perhaps more important, Ma Pampo has spent a lifetime drinking the mineral-rich water and breathing the pristine air of an island that boasts 365 clear-as-glass rivers and springs, a spectacular rain forest and, in the fast-growing world of eco-tourism, the title “Nature Isle of the Caribbean.”

She is not the only centenarian in this 250-year-old port town. A neighbor, Rose Peter, is 116, and Bruno said he has cataloged eight other women who are older than 100. His own grandmother recently died at 103, he said.

Broadcaster Didn’t Believe It at First

Still, the broadcaster says, he didn’t believe it at first when he heard that a 125-year-old woman was living on Dominica. The report came from a regular caller, Jennifer Perillon, during a commercial break on Bruno’s weekly Cocoy-dialect talk show, “It’s Our Thing.”

Dasilver had told her of the discovery in the baptismal records, Perillon said. Bruno’s reaction: “I thought she was crazy.”

But a few days later, Bruno said, he visited Ma Pampo to see for himself. “And the minute I walked into that two-room shack, I was changed. I felt that something was happening. And I hadn’t even met her yet.”

When Bruno did shake Ma Pampo’s hand and sat down for their first chat, he said, “I felt younger.” He spent two weeks investigating, gathering documents of her baptism and those of her immediate relatives, and listening to the old woman’s stories--tales from a century ago or more. He concluded that “everything just fit into place. I was adequately satisfied that she’s authentic.”

Bruno broke the story on his show in January, and overnight Ma Pampo became an islandwide sensation--the oldest, newest symbol of pride, nationalism and hope in a nation suffering through soaring unemployment and government debt.

Her recent 125th birthday party was a national event: Neighbors carried Ma Pampo outside her shack to celebrate with hundreds of well-wishers. A local supermarket chain promised her free food for life.

A week later, for Prime Minister Rosie Douglas’ Feb. 3 inauguration, Ma Pampo was chauffeured to the capital, where she was given a seat of honor.

To get there, she endured an hour of bad roads without her closest friends and neighbors beside her. Bruno is beginning to wonder whether he shouldn’t have left this national treasure to live out her remaining years in peaceful obscurity.

“That trip alone has taken some life away from her,” Bruno said.”

On balance, though, Bruno believes that the lessons of Ma Pampo’s life are as valuable as the life itself.

“The ultimate lesson is that life is a chain,” he said. “I believe that she’s the one link that combines three centuries and four generations.

“And if you come to understand her life, a lot of negative feelings will go away. When you contemplate this life, the shootings and the fightings, the material possessions just disappear from your mind.”


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