The formula for long life
Is the ‘nature isle’ of Dominica home to the perfect recipe for a really, really long life? Meera Dattani finds out
“She likes hard food,” Cecile Esprit tells me, smiling at her 104-year-old mother, Beldrina Anatasie Eusebe. “She says: ‘No soft food. I’m not a baby’!”
Laughter fills the lounge. I’m in Cecile and Beldrina’s home in La Plaine, a village on the south-eastern coast of Dominica. With us is Beldrina’s other daughter, Hilda Prosper, and her daughter Wendy. Known locally as ‘Ma Topie’, Beldrina celebrated her 104th birthday on 15 June 2016 and is one of several residents over 100 years old on the island.
The lush green ‘nature island’ in the eastern Caribbean archipelago has long been championed for its healthy lifestyle. There are at least 27 centenarians in a population of 72,000, and perhaps more that are unrecorded; there is also a high percentage of people in their mid-to-late 90s.
I ask Beldrina, or ‘Mama’, to spell her name. She’s spelling-bee speedy. “You’re faster than me!” I tell her, struggling to keep up. It soon emerges Beldrina has never even been to hospital. “She fell down once,” Hilda says. “We took her to the doctor, but he said she was fine.” It’s not uncommon to prefer natural remedies over doctor visits anyway; for many here, the garden is the pharmacy. “She loves bush tea,” says Cecile. “If she has a cold, we use plants first.”
It’s not just Beldrina who is ageing gracefully. Cecile is 66 years old, and Hilda is 71 yet neither look their age. Hilda’s 37-year-old daughter could also pass for a decade younger. They say Mama loves provisions, vegetable staples such as dasheen, plantain and breadfruit. I ask Beldrina what her favourite food is. She speaks sweetly, delicately. “My favourite food is what they give me. I cannot say, ‘Give me this today, give me that tomorrow’. If what they give me is not poison, I will eat it,” she says. We all laugh again.
Close-knit communities, church, family and social events also connect Dominica’s centenarians but a natural diet is key. St Kitts-born Dr Sybil Allen Jones runs a wellness consultancy, The Human Factor, in Dominica. “The centenarian culture is a classic example of how healthy lifestyle practices contribute to well-being, extended age and quality of life,” she says. “Historically, they ate fish from the ocean, crayfish from the rivers, and chemical-free greens and fresh fruit from their gardens. They were active, tending their gardens, walking from village to village, and connected to the rhythm of the sunrise and sunset.”
Of course, many habits have changed. “We didn’t have fridges before,” says Cecile. “We’d salt and smoke fish or meat but now it’s all frozen. There’s more junk food, and people aren’t cooking.”
These changes also concern Gail Defoe, a pathologist specialising in wellness and longevity, and CEO of Caribbean Agro Producers Corporation, which makes medicinal herbal teas and phyto (herb-based) pharmaceuticals. “Dominica rates highly in obesity and NCDs [non-communicable diseases]; cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks and stroke, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma, and diabetes.”
Jamaica-born Gail moved to Dominica in 2002 and interviewed the oldest living person at the time, 118-year-old Ma Pampo. “I wanted to see what had contributed to her health and wellbeing. I remember speaking loudly to her, and she corrected me in a strong voice, ‘I am somewhat blind, not deaf!’ We laughed.”
Like Beldrina, she credited her longevity to natural foods, coconut oil and an active life. Ma Pampo worked until she was over 100 on the Picard Estate. Similarly, Beldrina raised ten children with her husband (who died in 1996) and worked at La Plaine’s agriculture centre before retiring at 60 to become a self-employed farmer.
I ask Beldrina if she’s completed Dominica’s Boiling Lake hike. I’d walked it the day before, and had not stopped complaining about my aching limbs. “Oh yes,” she says. “I did it with groceries on my head.”
Cecile says Beldrina and others would often go for a ‘bel marche’, a nice walk – hardly how I’d describe a gruelling trek, and testament to their strength. “They didn’t have money to go shopping regularly, so they’d walk the trail every so often. Now, people hop in the car.”
With an estimated half a million centenarians worldwide, triple the number at the start of the 21st century, how will Dominica’s centenarian population fare with changes in lifestyle, diet, work practices and reliance on technology and fast food? Dr Sybil Allen Jones is realistic. “Today’s population health profile includes one in five with a pre-diabetic or diabetic condition, one in three is hypertensive, one in two overweight or obese, and nine in ten don’t eat the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables.”
But she’s confident about the potential for change. “The nature isle has everything to create and sustain wellness, but it requires a cultural revolution to reverse the trends of 2016. I’m hopeful when people connect their poor-quality lifestyle with declining health, they’ll choose wellbeing. My mission is to empower them to embrace healthy practices, with simple, affordable, life-changing skills.”
Return to nature
Near La Plaine, in the Zion Valley, bush doctor Moses James runs a guesthouse and restaurant, and is both village herbalist and midwife. He takes a similar view. He worked as a salesman in Roseau before changing his life. “I went to my father’s estate and started practising with herbs. I learned our parents used herbs on a large scale; leaves as medicine, fruits as food. For them, it was fresh water, fresh fruit, trekking up the mountain. You have to understand how active they were.” He too feels the disconnect between people and nature. “We have to return to Mother Earth. There’s a new age of consciousness as people get fed up of polluted water and air.”
With its gurgling pools, waterfalls and volcanic activity, Dominica feels positively alive. It’s not surprising the current centenarian generation is reaping the rewards of the nature island. Before leaving, I ask Mama about her recent birthday celebrations. “Well, it was very good,” she says. “I hope I have a birthday again,” she adds with a grin.
I ask Cecile if she thinks she’ll live as long. “Oh yes,” she says, and flashes the same twinkling smile.
Live long like a local
Martha Cuffy is a wellness consultant, writer and former Dominica resident. While living on the island she helped create the Dominica Spa, Health & Wellness Association (DSHWA), a go-to place for all things spa, health and wellness, from Caribbean cookery courses and yoga holidays to herbal garden tours and eco-therapy.
Here are her top tips for a healthy life.
• Cook with coconut oil where possible
• Drink herbal tea using fresh roots and herbs such as cinnamon and ginger
• Cultivate a connection with nature, even in an urban environment, such as walking barefoot on grass, volunteering at a local garden or doing exercise classes in the park
• Grate ingredients from fresh rather than buying them pre-grated/pre-chopped in packets
• Make juices from scratch with a blender
• Grow or buy organic vegetables
• Slow things down – for instance, at sunset, sit and talk about life with a friend