Rand Aid Elphin Lodge retirement village resident Maria Gaiti celebrated her 100th birthday on 23 January, with a surprise cake, gifts and champagne organised by Elphin committee member Jenny Sella. She is also looking forward to a family celebration on 27 January.
Born in Brescia, Northern Italy, in 1923, Maria was the third of five children and has three brothers and a sister.
Her father owned a general store and the family was held in high regard by the community. Maria had a happy childhood, helping in the family business, and she loved the three-month summer holidays in the nearby mountains.
Maria went to school at the local convent and, after primary school, studied commerce and accounting. While at the convent, she also studied English.
World War 2 started when Maria was a teenager and, at age 19, she started working as a secretary at the Societá Elettrica Bresciana (Brescia Electricity Board) near the railway station. When the area became dangerous due to bombardments, the office moved to a nearby hill.
After the war, Italy was very poor and Maria’s older brother emigrated to Kenya in search of a better life. His younger brothers soon followed and Maria joined her brothers in Kenya in 1955, where she enjoyed a ‘good and adventurous life’.
She met Ugo, who was her brothers’ friend and business associate, in Kenya and they were married on 20 December 1959.
They planned to spend their honeymoon in Cape Town, which turned into quite an adventure.
Maria says her youngest brother Paolo, who owned and flew a light aircraft, offered to fly them to Dar Es Salaam to board the MV Africa from Trieste, bound for Cape Town. However, just before reaching Dar Es Salaam, the aircraft developed engine trouble and they were forced to land in a sisal farm field. They were made welcome by the owner and offered transport to Dar Es Salaam where they boarded the ship the next day.
The couple reached Cape Town safely and were captivated by the New Year carnival festivities, visits to wine farms and other attractions. On the return trip to Kenya, the ship encountered rough seas at the confluence of the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and their cabin, which was situated below sea level, was flooded when a bulkhead door blew open.
They eventually reached Mombasa safely where they got off the ship and travelled to Nairobi by train, via Nanyuki (situated at an altitude of 2000 metres on the Equator), which was another adventure.
Maria and Ugo have two children. Gabriella, born in February 1961; and Alberto, born in December 1963. They also have two grandchildren, Stefano and Sabrina, and one great-grandchild, Michele.
After the birth of her children, Maria’s parents joined them in Kenya. She was still working full-time at the family business while running a home and raising her children.
In 1966, the family was offered a chance to move to Somalia to manage one of Maria’s brother’s manufacturing companies. They remained in Somalia until 1970 when they returned to Italy for a while.
In 1974, Ugo submitted an application for the family to emigrate to Adelaide, Australia, but the family decided to come to South Africa instead. They stayed in a flat in Eastleigh and then bought a house in Edenvale in 1976.
Maria worked for Pick n Pay at its head office in Bedfordview for nine years, until 1989. She was in charge of the fruit and veg department and was responsible for making a weekly profit-and-loss account of all the stores in the Southern Transvaal area. Ugo worked for Murray and Roberts for 17 years.
After a five-year wait, Maria and Ugo moved into Elphin Lodge in 2008 where they have been very happy.
Maria says that their cottage is in a great location, looking out over the dams, gardens, birds, ducks and geese. “Help is always available when we need it,” says Maria.
Maria believes that life is a great university. “I learnt to not just trust everyone and to avoid people who are insincere and manipulative,” says Maria, who advises younger generations to do the same.
“Never give up, even if you are 100 years old,” says Maria, who still uses a computer for all of her all correspondence and to manage her finances. She has also kept up-do-date with technology and speaks to her daughter regularly via WhatsApp video call.