She had it all in life. Or so she thought. At the peak off her career, Joyce Wanjiku Kairu could afford all the pleasures that money could buy, including gallivanting around the world to shop and vacation at will.
Not even when her mother was diagnosed with cancer of the colon in its final stages in 2009 did she see the need to take a break and come back to Kenya.
Wanjiku worked as a project manager for a multinational blue chip company in South Africa.
TOO BUSY TO COME HOME
"I was too 'busy' to come home and take care of my ailing mother yet she and I knew very well that the cancer had metastasised and she did not have long to live," she says.
Wanjiku eventually came back home on May 28, 2010, six days before her mother died in her presence in hospital.
After burying her mother, Wanjiku returned to South Africa amid an overwhelming soccer fever during the 2010 World Cup.
Little did she know then that it would be the World Cup that would lead her to her epiphany.
EPIPHANY IN THE MIDDLE OF SOCCER MATCH
“In the middle of watching a soccer match at the stadium it dawned on me that if I had time to spend on soccer, I should also have had time to nurse my ailing mother and more importantly, support her with personal care like giving her a bath, change diapers, escort her to hospital and help with taking medicine, plait her hair and sing with her, among others for the period she had left," she says, her eyes glistening with unshed tears.
That was what she needed to make her dedicate her whole life to serving the elderly.
Not only did she participate in philanthropic activities with Rivers Foundation (under Rivers Church) in Johannesburg, SA, she also began visiting and helping the elderly in Soweto and Alexander, Johannesburg. She says she mainly visited to give them compassion, escort the sick to hospital and clean homes, visit museums, listen to the rich SA history and so on. She involved the Rivers Foundation in her activities, but due to the diversity in the RF activities, Wanjiku decided to dedicate and focus her charity activities to her calling of taking care of the vulnerable older people.
“When I started helping out the elderly in SA, before moving back to Kenya, it was more out of guilt but that guilt later transformed into a calling,” she says.
QUIT HER JOB
"I felt my calling was back home, where there is more need and where the social fabric has altered family values, with most of us travelling around the globe".
She took the decision to quit her well-paying job and informed her employer.
“This did not go down very well with my employer, friends and the church as they did not understand me or this calling I kept talking about. They all suggested that I go for counseling and for a mental checkup, “she says.
IMMUTABLE, UNSTOPPABLE DECISION
“To their surprise, I attended a few sessions, which reported that I was normal and that it was a decision that was immutable and unstoppable. I wrote a concept paper which I believed I would work with and in August 2011, I packed my bags, left my high lifestyle of living in a posh house, luxury cars and globe-roving and came home to Kenya to serve humanity, which I have been doing with compassion, humility and commitment," she explains.
In November 2011, Purity Elderly Care Foundation (PECF), an NGO, was registered in honor of her late mother
Her father is her biggest source of support. He had initially offered one of his buildings in Kieni to house the PECF when Wanjiku started out.
She has since come to be known as the “professional beggar” in Nyeri town. Her resource mobilisation takes her to farmers, shops and supermarkets, restaurants, government structures, company offices as well as individuals.
PECF's initial operations began in Mweiga in Kieni West, Nyeri County, where the founder was born and bred, and it has gradually expanded to Solio in Laikipia County because of the many senior citizens who migrated there after they were offered land by the government due to poverty and congestion in the shanty settlement. PECF has also done some work in Kisii, Machakos, Kirinyaga and Murang'a Counties.
George Macharia, 93, is a former politician who lives alone in his big house. His wife died a while back and most of his children were all working abroad. At one time, one of his sons is alleged to have been plundering his father’s wealth. Through the intervention of PECF, the old man was able to save his assets from being pilfered. PECF also visited Macharia’s home regularly so he had someone to talk to and feel less lonely.
BOTTLE OF RED WINE
Wanjiku tells us that visits to the old man's house are great, as he discusses politics and always asks for a bottle of red wine with each visit. Thanks to friends of PECF, a bottle of wine is delivered with every visit.
In addition to offering companionship, PECF has also been in the forefront fighting for often overlooked services for the elderly. In July 2015, she complained to the Judiciary over lack of lifts and ramps at the Nyeri Law Courts, citing accessibility issues for the elderly, the sick and the disabled. Fortunately, the cry was heard and the Judiciary responded. Lifts have since been installed and are operational. They are working on the ramps while most of the cases that relate to the elderly, such as succession, are held in Court No. 5, on the ground floor.
Wanjiku’s eyes are now trained on the government cash transfer programme for the elderly launched in 2007. She is fearful that the vulnerable groups that the programme targets are not adequately informed on how it works. For instance, she says, the health and literacy levels of beneficiaries were not taken into account. And while many argue that relatives could assist applicants, therein lies a new challenge, with the same cash being stolen by the kin.
HUMBLED BY RECOGNITION
Her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Because of her work, Wanjiku has been recognised by the Global Ageing Network to receive a special commendation for her services to the ageing. The award will be presented to her in September during the 2017 Global Ageing Conference in Switzerland.
“I am humbled by the recognition. However, I must say that this (award) is not for me, but for us all,” she quips with glee written all over her face.
She concludes the interview with an appeal for blankets during this cold season:
“For some, a simple thing such as a match box is a luxury, and if I don’t appeal for them, who will? How will they make fires to keep them warm during this season?”
Wanjiku says she will be able to say she has been successful when she can build a decent structure or feed or simply clean and give company to the elderly.
Do you have feedback on this story? E-mail: [email protected]