Jane Wells, Founder of the Meningitis Trust
PUBLISHED: 18:28 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:52 20 February 2013
As if being the driving force behind the formation of the life-saving Meningitis Trust wasn't enough of an adventure, Jane Wells is now about to set off for pastures new after marrying an African tribesman! Katie Jarvis reports
TO have one great story to tell about your life is impressive; to have two, looks like an indulgence!
Except that no one would deny Jane Wells, founder of the Meningitis Trust, her current happiness. For Jane recently celebrated getting married - to an African tribesman. She and her new husband, Gabriel Raphael Jawa Okoth, tied the knot on May 31, three months after they first met.
"A lot of people in England haven't understood how it could have happened because I'm considered very level-headed," Jane admits. "It sounds absolutely crazy but, in spite of our different cultures, Gabriel and I found common ground straight away. We talked about the same things; we thought in the same way; we've had similar experiences in our relationships.
"In Africa, people don't live for tomorrow - this is a country where death could be next week. We knew things were right and we didn't want to wait to get married."
She and Gabriel, a Luo tribesman, originally from the shores of Lake Victoria, will spend six months in England before returning to make a permanent home together in Africa.
"Gabriel will find England very different. I had to explain to him that you could walk up a street in Stroud and have no one say 'Hello!' He found that concept really difficult. 'Surely they speak to you?' he said!"
The couple met in February when Jane took up a post as a volunteer teacher during a mature 'gap year' at the age of 50. After securing a year's secondment from the Gloucester secondary school where she was supporting special needs children, she arrived at the Wema Centre, an orphanage, school and adult education centre in Bamburi, near Mombasa.
"I rode a pushbike everywhere, which was very unusual, and the kids absolutely loved it. Every time I got there, they mobbed me and took turns to ride it. Nearly every day something got broken, which is how I met Gabriel."
The friendly bicycle repair man charged well under the market rate for the work he was doing, and a friendship soon developed - and deepened.
Jane's children from her first marriage were shocked when their mum told them her news, but both families are delighted. "Gabriel's family also accepted me at once," Jane says. "It took us 20 hours to get to the area where he was brought up, which is in the middle of nowhere. His parents live in a wattle and daub house they'd all built together 35 years ago, while the rest of the family were in mud huts. You have to use rainwater outside to wash and the toilet's just in little corrugated tin shacks with holes in the floor. The worst bit was the cockroaches - they were massive. I was always screaming, which everyone found very funny."
It's not only her relationship with Gabriel that's calling Jane back to Africa. She also formed a close bond with the bush children she befriended out there. Much of her time was spent teaching English to 11-year-old Kibaki and Kadzo (13), neither of whom had ever been to school. "They couldn't speak English and I couldn't speak Swahili," Jane says, "so I used lots of visual aids instead. I taught them numbers using a pack of playing cards, and we played lots of games, and sang nursery rhymes in English."
It came as a shock to Jane to discover that, away from school, Kadzo was acting as mother to six of her brothers and sisters, the youngest of whom was three. The only support they got was from their absent father, who sent a meagre bag of flour each week, and their 21-year-old brother, who appeared intermittently.
Jane also began supporting a single-parent family from the same village, where a seven-year-old girl was the main carer for her three-year-old twin siblings and a five-month-old baby, which she carried round on her back. "Their mother was going from 7am to 7pm with a bowl of fruit on her head, trying to sell it to support the kids. The twins were very sick when I found them - pot bellied, malnourished with runny eyes and noses. When I left for England, they'd just got malaria, which was very distressing."
When Jane returns to Africa, she's hoping to work part-time, and to continue supporting families with the help of a special fund she's setting up in England. "Wema is educating these children, but they're coming to school starving, with their houses falling down. They have no sanitation, and even little kids are walking bare-foot for a mile-and-a-half through the bush to get water; they don't really even have food.
"I want to be able to help them build homes and set up a proper water supply.
"I'd also like to publicise the work Wema is doing. As well as teaching children, they have a fantastic technical department, teaching skills to adults, which needs new equipment such as sewing machines and computers."
On top of this, Jane will be continuing her work with the Meningitis Trust, possibly even forging links between African and English hospitals.
"For me," Jane says, "Africa was like going back to the 1950s when everyone had nothing, but helped each other. While I was there, there were also huge floods, but no one thought about themselves: they thought as a collective group. If the man next door was flooded, they would all build his shed back up and help restock, even though they were poor themselves. And they knew that if it happened to them, they'd get the same help.
"Because of what we went through as a family - because of Dan's meningitis - we've never valued material things; we care about people and not possessions."
Her biggest fear, she says, is that Gabriel will like England so much he'll want to stay. "Personally, for all the comparative wealth, I don't think our life is better over here.
"All my life, I've been saying, 'There's got to be something more to life'; and I've found it in Africa. I've found it in that man."
Anyone who wishes to give towards the work of the Wema Centre can do so through the website www.wemacentre.org, quoting Jane Wells as a contact.