New Paths in Later Life

When I retired from being an attorney, I wanted to start a new life of service. I first became interested in doing something about the HIV/AIDS problem in Kenya after visiting the country in 2002. My concern was somewhat unfocused; I did not know what I could do, where I could do it or with whom I would work. Five years later, my concern drove me back to Kenya to live. This time, I took my 18-year-old granddaughter with me.

Arrival in Kenya was a bit rugged with the uncertainties of where to go and what to do, but I decided to go to Kaimosi, the historic center of Friends in Kenya. I stayed there and accepted an invitation from the Rural Service Programme, an organization founded by Quakers that helps build infrastructure for Kenyan communities. The Programme provided living quarters in a staff house which my granddaughter immediately rejected, though she was soon to learn that a vigorous scrubbing with bleach followed by painting and adding a toilet, stove, refrigerator and kitchen sink could certainly make the place comfortable.

My granddaughter found useful volunteer work in a pre-primary school teaching small children English and Swahili, which she was learning as she taught. These basic language skills are prerequisites for entering primary school in Kenya (equivalent to U.S. first grade). I began the Kuwesa Project—Kuwesa is a Luhya word from Swahili that means “to be able”—with the intent of helping HIV widows earn some small money for the children’s school fees and transportation to medical care. Little did I know, I was awakening a sleeping tiger by empowering women who had rarely, if ever, earned and controlled cash income. Five years later, the women of Kuwesa are a feisty lot who stand up for themselves and know they can overcome any challenge. These women are both inspirational and uplifting.

How was Kuwesa developed? I started by trying knitted projects, which did not work out well. We then moved on to fabric, creating the Kuwesa jacket and many patchwork items. The women were able to make these items and have been able to earn substantial amounts of money, which increases their individual and group self-confidence. The maker of the sold products earns one-third of the purchase price; one-third goes to the women’s group capital, and one third goes back to Kuwesa for more materials. The groups have used their capital mainly on agricultural income, generating projects such as chickens, fish ponds, and bananas. Environmentally sound fuel briquettes have also been made for use and sale.

The initial failure of Kuwesa to make products which could be sold in the West was very disheartening to me. I struggled with the thought that I had urged them to do this work and there was no reward or payment at the end. Yet they are very tolerant when some ideas don’t work as well as others. I was able to keep going through this difficult process because I believed it was right and just to help those who have been consistently oppressed. I also believed that this would work out for them, and I could not simply give up—I had come to know them as individuals, and I could not betray their trust in me. Perhaps it was my sheer stubbornness, but five years later, the women have been able to produce products that people in western countries purchase, and they have not only gained money, but self-worth. I think I smile most over their newly discovered strengths.

In April 2012, I started to purchase and distribute biosand water filters. These simple filters take clear water to safe drinking water in a matter of minutes without fuel or chemicals. This has brought about a radical change in the lives of the Kuwesa women. Dysentery is the leading cause of death among children in Kenya, and the instant effect of these filters is that the children stop having diarrhea. The women, particularly those who are HIV positive, report that they “feel better.” The biosand filter project was begun by Friends in Washington State who travel around the third world teaching people to build and use the filters. The filters also extend the life expectancy of HIV positive people, making it possible for Kuwesa women to live to raise their children, a major concern for those who are HIV positive.

What would I say to other Friends who might be contemplating retirement and not wanting to feel used up? I would say that retirement doing service brings new life and new joy. It also requires new solutions to old problems that only a different perspective can give. Living and participating in the life around us does impart a certain wisdom and patience that may not have existed earlier in life when we had boundless energy and youthful bodies. I highly recommend service in retirement as the perfect antidote to feeling useless, bored or old.

S. Jean Smith

S. Jean Smith is a member of Kaimosi Meeting. She is the founder of the Kuwesa Project, which is based in Kaimosi, Kenya, where she lives.

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