Leading from the front, Joyce Wanjiku is engaging the local community in her Nyeri hometown to be sensitive to the plight of the elderly. Her actions and messages focus on supporting the elderly by giving them food, love and acceptance, as well as decent shelter. She is calling on everyone to follow her example and help improve the quality of life of the elderly. Hers is a calling as she narrated to MWAURA MUIGANA.
When Joyce Wanjiku sought greener pastures in South Africa after completing her secondary school education at Othaya Girls High School in Nyeri County in 1998, she had no idea the turn around her life would take. For seventeen years, she lived in the high-end suburbs of Johannesburg. She worked for a number of companies alongside pursuing her university studies and not only graduated with a Bachelors of Commerce degree, but also specialized in project management.
Her breakthrough came when she undertook project management for one of the biggest independent power production projects in South Africa while working with PB Power. So good was the job that it paid a six-figure salary. Later on, she moved to work for different companies as a project manager, some of which posted her outside South Africa to manage their overseas projects. Joyce worked in Sweden, Finland and Netherlands, among other countries. The money flowed in and she became a high flier, loving life, going for sabbatical leave in the USA and traveling to New Zealand, Australia and other countries to watch her favourite game – rugby.
She regularly sent money to her parents in addition to checking up on them often. Whenever she came home for a visit, she would shower her parents with household shopping and cash before dashing back to her demanding job in South Africa. Joyce thought she was doing the best for her parents but her mum wished she would stay with them longer. “It was obvious she longed for my love and company more than my money,” says Joyce.
It was while she worked as a project manager for Lexmark International consulting for Standard Bank in South Africa, that her mum was diagnosed with cancer of the colon at its very late stages. At the time Joyce was on vacation in the US. When she learnt about her mother’s illness, she was guilt-ridden on realising how detached she had been to her. She wished she could have spent more time with her.
She returned home to find her mother very sick. “I felt it was my responsibility to care for my mother. I had two choices – to quit my job and return home or employ a qualified caregiver. I did neither. Instead I argued that since mum had two house helps and a husband to take care of her, she would be just fine. I returned to South Africa and regrettably mum died on June 3, 2010 when I was away,” explains Joyce who lives with the regret that she was not there for her mum when she needed her most.
A burden for the aged…
“I came home for mum’s burial and stayed a little longer, feeling disturbed at how we treat our ailing parents. It was then that I realised there is more to life than money. I should have done more for my late mother. It dawned on me that there was a serious problem in the society, particularly for people who are too busy and think that money and phone calls are what our elderly parents and grandparents need. That’s not it. They need our presence and constant love and care,” Joyce says.
In August 2011, Joyce quit her job in South Africa and returned to Kenya with one desire – to help the elderly. Her dad, siblings and friends, save for a Mr. Wachira and Rev. Ng’ang’a of Parklands Baptist Church, Nairobi, thought she was out of her mind.
“I registered Purity Elderly Foundation (PEF) in November 2011, a foundation whose objective is to help the elderly, in memory of my late mother, Purity. Soon, I learnt that the vulnerable elderly were in more deplorable conditions than I had envisaged and couldn’t help them on my own. So I resolved to involve the media, the community, the administration and anybody willing to lend a hand,” Joyce explains the genesis of her foundation.
A party for the aged…
On New Year’s ever in December 2011, Joyce launched the foundation with a party for the elderly in her home area. She used the party as a forum to establish the number of elderly people in the area, as well as give them an opportunity to interact and inspire each other.
She bought food items and also approached shopkeepers, greengrocers, butchers and other traders from Mweiga town to chip in with food donations. She went on a similar begging mission to Nyeri town, walking into bars and other establishments asking patrons to spare some money for her noble course. Most responded positively and she was encouraged. She stored the foodstuffs in her dad’s vacant shop in Mweiga town, which she later converted into offices for Purity Elderly Care Foundation.
She used the community health workers to mobilise the elderly from Kyeni West district. The former Nyeri County Council chairman, Wachira Ken, supported this noble gesture by offering free transport to the elderly to enable them attend the party, which was held outside her dad’s shop. Over 100 elderly people turned up. They interacted, sang, danced and enjoyed themselves and each had a food gift to take home.
So successful was the party that it has now become an annual event. The elderly collect donations at PEF while volunteers and social workers ferry donations to those too weak to collect them. Joyce has ventured deep into the villages visiting the elderly and assisting them.
Providing shelter and involving others…
She has mobilised the community to get involved in the project and make it sustainable. So, how does she do it? On identifying a needy case, Joyce solicits for donations of food, beddings, clothing and other items from the local community. She has become so popular in the community that the locals now refer to her as “Wanjiku the beggar” or “Wanjiku wa andu akuru” (darling of the elderly).
The assistance given to the aged has gone a notch higher from just visiting and sharing with them, to providing shelter. This is done with the community’s involvement. The first beneficiary was Njeri, a grandmother, living alone in her rat-infested house together with her goats. What she called home was a small ramshackle with gaping holes on the wall and a roof that leaked during the rainy season. Joyce got donations of iron sheets and other construction materials from the business community in Nyeri town and then invited university and college students from Nyeri County and matatu touts in Mweiga to provide labour.
The then local district commissioner and Member of Parliament also joined in as Njeri’s house was refurbished with new walls and a roof and cleaned. A separate shed for her goats was also constructed. Today, Cucu Njeri lives comfortably and receives food regularly from PEF. She has resumed her previous craft of weaving baskets and is now making some money to support herself.
In June 2012 Joyce identified another neglected old woman living in deplorable conditions in the village and purposed to put up a shelter for her at Solio in Mweiga where she owned some family land. She got donations of construction materials from the Nyeri business community and invited the Kyeni East district commissioner, chiefs, the district officer and administration policemen to provide labour for the construction of the house.
The local administration often provides Joyce with transport to carry food donations to PEF’s storage in Mweiga town, while the ministry of public health provides technical advice when constructing toilets. At Joyce’s request, Boda Boda operators have been sensitised to offer to deliver firewood and food free of charge or for a small fee to needy elderly who can’t fetch it for themselves.
Some taxi operators also help her out by taking the elderly to hospital free of charge when they fall sick. PEF also engages community health workers and locals to cook for the elderly who are either too frail or sickly to cook for themselves. Sixty-two elderly people have benefitted from construction or refurbishment of their dilapidated houses.
July Blankets Day…
On July 7, 2012, PEF launched the July Blankets Day to support the aged with blankets and beddings to forestall the June-July cold season. After visiting many elderly people, Joyce realised their needs are much more than blankets. Thus, the July Blankets Day has been expounded to mobilise people to donate other resources such as firewood, water jerry cans, clothes, socks and blankets, as well as engage the community in repairing their homes and also ensure the fires in their homes are kept burning so they can stay warm.
Currently, PEF is running a campaign to collect blankets, firewood from saw millers and individuals, plastic sheets to cover leaking roofs and transport to take donated items to the storage in Mweiga town.
A dignified send-off for Theresa…
“During one of my visits, I came across an elderly woman, Theresa, who had been abandoned by the community and lived alone in her room in Kwa Bengi slums. She had wounds and bedsores and helping herself to the toilet was a task. I engaged a local clinical officer to examine and treat her before identifying two ladies who lived nearby to care for her at a small fee.
A local supermarket donated a mattress and three blankets and a Good Samaritan a bed and with some linen from my wardrobe, I was able to make a comfortable and warm bed for Theresa. Although the clinical officer said it was too late and Theresa didn’t have much time to live, I wanted her to die with some dignity. And for the next seventeen days that she lived, she had a smile on her face.
Some community and church members were embarrassed and angry with me for exposing them for neglecting the elderly in their midst when Theresa’s case became public. Theresa allegedly didn’t have a family to bury her. I borrowed a coffin and got a burial space at the public cemetery, then mobilised the community to raise money to transport her body from the mortuary,” Joyce explains. On the day of the burial, four relatives from Kirinyaga turned up after Joyce highlighted Theresa’s plight in the media. The relatives said they lost contact with the deceased a long time ago.
Another case was that of sickly Mbarire who was neglected and abandoned in his house in Chaka village in Kiganjo, Nyeri. Joyce visited him in September 2012 and witnessed his maggot-infested body. “I decided to take him to hospital and involved the local chief for security reasons. The chief reluctantly summoned Mbarire’s brother who gave me transport to Nyeri Provincial General Hospital. Sadly, Mbarire died a day after hospitalization,” recalls Joyce.
Whenever Joyce comes across an elderly patient in need of medical attention and his family can’t get transport, she asks for donations from friends and negotiates with the hospital or medical institution for bill waivers. It was easier before taking the sick to hospital using her car but it recently had an accident and was written off.
“What I do is not easy but God has given me grace and unprecedented favour to do it,” Joyce says adding that she hopes PEF activities will spread to other counties in the country in the future so that many elderly people can benefit.
Published on May 2013