In the heart of Greendale’s lush farm country, a group of women sit around a coffee table and chat about Kenya.
They talk about the dirty water the children drink there, the pandemic HIV risks and the disease’s startling death rates, the lack of basic essentials and the need for better health care.
But mostly, they speak about the widows of Kakamega. And when they say the women’s name, they smile and reminisce.
Margaret. Alice. Jacinta.
Because these Kenyan women are not statistics they read about in the news. These are women they have met, face to face. They’ve shared meals with them and their children, prayed with them, and helped them create a better life.
“These are the most courageous women I have ever met,” says Mary Anne Westeringh.
She first met the women in 2013, while tagging along with her husband on a trip with the Chilliwack-based charitable organization Hungry For Life.
“What I saw and experienced will be imprinted in my mind forever,” she says. Upon returning home, she rallied together several other women to put together their own delegation to return to the area. In the meantime, they fundraised and sent money to HFL’s field partner, Edwin Napali. By the time the Chilliwack women returned to Kakamega last October, a brand new well was bringing fresh water directly to a local school. A dedication ceremony was held upon their arrival, and the women were shown the old path to the former water source.
Before the well was built, the school teacher, Beatrice, had to travel to a filthy water source for their drinking and washing water. She had to make the two kilometre trip several times a day, filling their five-gallon buckets with brown, sediment-filled water.
“This dirty water is their lifeline,” says Fran Westeringh, who visited last fall with Mary Anne. The long walk is also a dangerous one for young girls fetching water alone.
Providing a safer, healthier lifestyle for the widows of the area and the children under their care has become a passion for the Chilliwack women. On their previous trip they helped 14 women ages 30 to 80), most who have been widowed from AIDS. Some are young mothers, others are grandparents still working and caring for multiple generations. Gardening, selling produce at roadside stands, and menial farm labour is a common line of work in the area.
There are numerous projects the Chilliwack women have put into place. On their last visit, they brought along hand-sewn, washable and re-usable feminine hygiene packages. They showed them how to use them, how to clean them, and how long to wear them. They also brought along basic medical supplies and acetaminophen. Without access to hygiene products (due to poverty and availability issues), the women are at further risk for infections and illnesses. Many are left with no option but to sit in their rooms during menstruation, missing a week of school or work unnecessarily.
When the women return this October, they will be taking more of the packages.
“And more soap,” says Jane Both. “The more you go the more you realize how little they have. They don’t even have access to soap.”
But they are careful not to just hand out items and leave. They are also helping with a gardening education program that teaches the women how to grow more vegetables, in the same space and with less water. Women that attend the classes are given a cow to help sustain their families, and they are asked to share the knowledge among their community.
“Hungry for Life is really about sustainability,” Mary Anne says.
The eight women who are going in October are paying their own way for the trip, again, and are fundraising to help purchase the supplies they’ll be taking along. They are also fundraising for the bigger projects they have planned. In the past they’ve built and fixed homes and purchased new mattresses and covers for an orphanage.
They are planning a fundraiser on Saturday, June 20, at the Chilliwack Free Reformed Church on Yale Road (behind the Service Canada building). Group member Arlene Pede has been busy making pies, and Heather Strahl and Jane Both are working on traditional stroopwaffles, which will be on sale from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. They’ll also be running a bottle drive from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., and all refundables can be dropped off there.
To learn more, stop by to meet the ladies, or visit Hungry for Life’s website.