A group of retirees are travelling to Africa in the hope of changing lives. Catherine Scott reports.
What new year’s resolutions do you make when you are retired? Well for members of Howden University of the Third Age (U3A) group, for 2020, their resolution is to forgo the retired life and grey skies of East Yorkshire, and to work hard instead on the carbon-positive trip of a lifetime, saving and changing lives in South Africa.
In 2015 retired primary school teacher Margie Henderson, who taught children with severe learning difficulties and now works as a volunteer with the refugee council, teaching English to mainly Syrian refugees, met retired orthoptist Kay Philips, at a Howden U3A presentation by former deputy head and award-wining geography teacher-turned social entrepreneur Ken Dunn.
Ken is founder of charity Africa’s Gift. The two women were so inspired by his talk, they travelled with Ken to Lesotho in South Africa and loved it so much, they are going back this year on January 29 with other Howden U3A members.
The group will be joined by one South Yorkshire resident, Faye Smith from Sheffield who is fundraising to save lives on the trip in memory of her daughter Gabi, who died in a tragic accident seven years ago.
“When in March 2013, my 12 year-old daughter Gabi died suddenly of a rare trauma-related condition called Non Epileptic Attack Disorder, drowning in the bath one Saturday morning- my life purpose, my priorities, my reason to exist, changed forever in that instant,” explains Faye.
“It is something only another bereaved parent can truly understand, and I have met many of those in recent years for mutual support and understanding. So, widowed two years before Gabi died and with my son having graduated and living happily in London, I find myself prioritising life very differently and looking at how I can best serve others in her memory. I couldn’t save her life, but there are other mums across the world who will see their children die before their eyes if people like me don’t step up and out to educate and share their resources.
“Just before she died, Gabi had changed her career goal from Tudor historian to children’s doctor, so she could help children like her. I am now heading to one of the poorest countries on earth, entering via one of the world’s most unequal countries to save lives in honour of her dream.”
Faye explained why she was so supportive of the Wonderbag.
“Enterprises are springing up because thanks to a cooking innovation called Wonderbag we will be demonstrating in each community we visit, women are no longer time poor. Examples are start-ups producing washable sanitary pads for girls starting school and craft production. We will work alongside these dynamic women entrepreneurs and be welcomed into their communities.
“I think the area I am most excited about is showing women how to save their lives by using the award-winning environmentally- friendly revolutionary cloth slow cooker called a Wonderbag.”
Endorsed by celebrity chefs including Jamie Oliver, every bag is a carbon mitigator.
In the UK we use 10 tons of carbon each, more if we drive a car and fly on holidays.
“Last year, Sheffield Hallam University Masters students conducted research into Wonderbag’s impact, showing extraordinary results- comments from locals such as: ‘this bag saved my eyesight’ and ‘thank you for giving me my life back’. Independent research carried out in Rwanda shows each bag activated saves an astonishing 1.6 tons of carbon being released,” explains Faye.
Margie, for whom this will be the third trip, says: “I love working in African schools. The children were wonderful, but had nothing but blackboards, chalk, pencils and paper in their schools. I took loads of supplies out with me: brushes, paint, scissors, material so I could help the children to do loads of different things in school. They loved it, even doing some painting of murals on their walls. We also sang a lot and played games.”
Kay feels the same. “I am a retired orthoptist, divorced with two grown up children and three grandchildren. Once retired I joined Howden and district U3A and soon became a member of the committee as speaker finder- Ken being one. I worried that my expertise as an orthoptist would not be of any help to the people out there. Ken quickly reassured me that first and foremost, I simply needed to give human kindness. I had already holidayed in Africa, but this was going to be work. Ken was adamant that a lot of well-intentioned work carried out in Africa created a dependency culture and he ensured everything we did was fully sustainable after we left. The problems out there are soil erosion and smoke inhalation. The people are mainly subsistance farmers, so we were to help them plant trees and grow their own food in a better way. That was easy for me I loved gardening and showing them how to produce a good crop.
“The children were a delight to entertain. Almost 100 children turned up to a fun day we organised for them, using paints, crayons and felt tips and trying knitting, sewing, football and volleyball for the first time. That was just the beginning, it took me about a month once home to come back to my life here. It was the best time of my life, in so many ways.”
The Wonderbag works as a slow cooker; once food has been brought to the boil, the pot is removed from the heat source and placed into the insulated bag to finish cooking. The King of Lesotho holds the role of master of nutrition across Africa, so he is a huge fan of the way Wonderbag keeps all the nutrients in the food, rather than escaping with the steam as water levels are topped up. Wonderbags allow girls to go back into schools instead of pot-stirring.That is, only if they have black school shoes. Lesotho was formerly a British Protectorate and school uniform policy means no education without uniform and black shoes. To solve this problem, Ken has come up with ‘Happy Feet Days’ in schools, where pupils bring in old shoes of any sort to be sold in the markets of Accra which generates money for school shoes. Shoes are sold at an affordable price to local African traders once they have been cleaned, sorted, mended and distributed. All school shoes are allocated through the Malayalayan Development Trust.