She is smartly dressed, well educated and has lived and worked abroad. She is not your typical picture of a beggar, but Joyce Wanjiku Kairu insists that she is one — a professional beggar for that matter.
She goes around supermarkets, shops and offices in Nyeri Town, pleading for alms on behalf of old people in the county.
Popularly known as Wanjiku wa Andu Akuru (Wanjiku for the Elderly People), she says her mission is to serve senior citizens in society.
At 40, Ms Kairu, the founder and Executive Director of Purity Elderly Care Foundation, neither has a lover nor a child but that does not seem to bother her at all.
“I have old people that God gave me to take care of,” she says.
The care-giver goes from one place to another explaining her mission and requesting for help. She visits supermarkets, shops, saw millers, factories and groceries begging for food, adult diapers, mattresses and beds among others. Once she secures donations, she calls her friends for cash to transport them.
“I am a beggar by profession, I walk around begging for elderly people, not for myself,” she says.
She says she is amazed by the love, compassion and support she has been receiving from people and firms.
While working as a project manager in a South African firm, Ms Kairu used to earn a six-digit salary, and travelled extensively to Australia and the US for holidays. However, a peculiar tragedy changed this flashy lifestyle.
She traces her transformation to January 2010, when she visited her home and learnt that her mother had been diagnosed with cancer.
She returned to South Africa and would send money for her mother’s chemotherapy. Sadly, the woman passed on on June 3, 2010 at the age of 64, and Ms Kairu regretted not having stayed at home to nurse her.
Traumatic experience in South Africa
On a cold morning on May 24, 2011, she had another traumatic experience in South Africa.
“As I was jogging downhill, on the other side of the road there was a car coming uphill. Suddenly, I heard a big bang and a scream,” she recalls.
A woman from her neighbourhood had been knocked down by the car. She died on the spot. “I was the first witness, I had to call police,” she says.
After the body was removed, she went back to the house to prepare for the day. However, she suffered a panic attack and blacked out— only regaining her consciousness at 11am.
“I did not go to work. I was provoked by that accident to change my lifestyle. I had already started thinking about what I was doing,” she says.
A few days later, she resigned from her job and returned to Kenya to found Purity Elderly Care Foundation. As expected, many thought she was out of her mind.
For a while, she used her savings to sustain the mission but when she ran out of cash, she had to change the strategy.
“And that idea was begging for assistance from well-wishers,” says Ms Kairu. “The support that I get nowadays is overwhelming.”
She says she decided to form the foundation to cater for the welfare of the elderly and to sensitise the society on the significance of senior citizens.
The foundation focuses on elderly people who have been abandoned or neglected, and those who are sick, poor, abused and stigmatised. Hundreds of old men and women have benefited from her efforts in Nyeri, with some being saved from jaws of death literally.
One such beneficiary is an 80-year-old granny in Mathira constituency who was saved from rapists. The sex pests had abused her sexually for a long time. She was taken to hospital, where she was treated and accorded the requisite care.
At various events where the foundation has been going to donate food and other goods to the elderly, dramatic scenes have been illustrating just how desperate and needy senior citizens are.
In most cases, they end up scrambling for food and other merchandise being donated in a rush that betrays their age.
One such instance occurred early this year in Mweiga Town, where about 300 needy elderly people braved showers and biting cold to receive blankets and food.
With many having walked long distances to receive help, the rush was too mush for one granny from Amboni Village who collapse and lost consciousness over what her colleagues said was lack of food.
According to Ms Kairu, such cases are synonymous with many elderly people who have been neglected by their families.
“It was a shock to see her collapse after the shoving for food started. We later realised she used to live with her daughter-in-law who was said to have abandoned feeding her,” she says.
The foundation had to look for a well-wisher who would be providing her with food as they sought for a lasting solution to her problems. The woman with a big heart for senior citizens is now calling on all Kenyans to remember the elderly people this festive season.