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World’s Oldest Woman Featured at Rio Carnival

February 20, 1996

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) _ Surrounded by topless women in grass skirts, a former Brazilian slave who claims _ at 124 _ to be the world’s oldest person rode atop a float Tuesday as Brazil wrapped up four days of carnival festivities.

``I hope these people understand that slavery is cruel,″ said Maria do Carmo Geronimo, whose back still bears the scars of whip lashes inflicted by her master.

Just hearing his name _ Jose Garcia _ sends chills up her spine, she says.

Geronimo says she was born on March 8, 1871 _ 17 years before slavery was abolished in Brazil, and nearly four years before a Frenchwoman the Guinness Book of World Records says is the world’s oldest person.

Jeanne Calment of Arles, France turns 121 on Wednesday.

Geronimo’s supporters say confusion over her birth document, a baptismal paper issued by Roman Catholic missionaries instead of a birth certificate, kept her from her rightful place in the Guinness book’s international edition. She is listed in the Brazilian edition.

Propped Tuesday atop a red-and-gold float that carried her down Rio’s Sambadrome, Geronimo portrayed a mythical African princess, Aqualtune, whose grandson Zumbi led a slave revolt 300 years ago.

An ambulance and doctor were on call during the 90-minute performance, but they weren’t needed.

``She has the health of someone in her early 80′s,″ said Dr. Jose Geraldo do Vilela Reis, Geronimo’s physician. ``I guess simplicity is the key to longevity.″

The 4-foot-tall Geronimo lives in a one-room house built by the family that took her in nearly 90 years ago when she was a vagrant with nowhere to live. She worked for dozens of years as a nanny and maid, and now spends her days barefoot, cultivating a garden of medicinal herbs.

Although participating in Rio’s world-famous Carnival gave Geronimo a platform for pursuing her claim to being the world’s oldest person, she said Tuesday she wasn’t worried about the dispute.

Told her rival would be celebrating her birthday on Wednesday, Geronimo wished the Frenchwoman many happy returns. ``Why don’t we have wine together?″ she asked.

Elsewhere in the world, millions of revelers marked Tuesday’s final day of Carnival with parades featuring dance, song and expressions of social discontent.

_ In the Angolan capital of Luanda, merrymakers complained of the African nation’s galloping inflation and other economic woes. ``Our country sells oil, but we have no cash to buy candy for our kids!″ chanted participants from the Rangel shanty town, near Luanda’s airport.

_ Belgians joined a Mardi Gras meat boycott Tuesday in memory of a meat inspector slain by gangsters peddling illegal beef hormones. Karel Van Noppen was shot last year following warnings to stop interfering with the so-called ``hormone mafia″ that deals in the banned, growth-promoting substances.

_ In Haiti, a carnival parade in the capital, Port-au-Prince, featured only 12 floats and few decorations, a reflection of the country’s worsening economy. More than 200,000 people crowded the streets, dancing and chanting.

_ In Italy, tragedy marred the festivities when a 12-year-old boy died near the southern city of Caserta after he fell off a float made slippery by rain. A 13-year-old boy was hospitalized in Pesaro after being struck by a float, the ANSA news agency said.

_ In New Orleans, more than a million revelers jammed the French Quarter for America’s biggest street party, featuring parades and a transvestite beauty pageant. Some protested police pledges to censor skimpy dress and the mounted police who herd revelers off the narrow streets at midnight, usually into already crowded bars.

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