A life spent helping others
I met Marian Baker in August at Hillsboro’s French and Indian Wars re-enactment.
Baker has a master’s degree in environmental education. Thirty-two years ago, she was offered the opportunity to teach in a Quaker school in Kenya. The Quakers were the first in that country to offer school beyond elementary level and the first to offer schooling for girls. Baker remained in Africa for 10 years, becoming head of her school. She trained Kenyans to take her place. They became bursars, secretaries, field hockey coaches. They carried cement blocks to where they were needed to build more schools. Baker organized choirs. In Kenya, school choirs compete with each other. Music is a big thing.
Baker traveled to many different areas, including Uganda and Tanzania, to build schools and teach. Travel was in crowded station wagons, on local buses, on the back of motorcycles, by bicycle and on foot. She traveled with a companion and is full of startling tales of their adventures. Once, traveling in a lorry loaded with corn to be delivered to a remote village in Uganda, a group od Idi Amin’s soldiers climbed onto the truck.
“They stopped our singing, which was mostly songs we made up about the evil crocodile (Idi Amin). We were ordered to be totally quiet. Eventually, the soldiers left, taking our milk with them,” Baker said.
After a decade, Baker came home to Hillsboro to help out her 100-year-old grandmother. Here, she became the coordinator of Harris Center High School’s Field Studies, teaching young people about water pollution, air quality, vernal pools and wetlands. She also taught at Deering High School, Conval and Conant High School in Jaffrey. As she approached her 60s with no pension (the school system required that she teach 10 more years to be eligible for a pension), Baker switched careers. She became a rural mail carrier. If you started late in life to work for them, the Postal Service offered pensions after only five years, and they offered three weeks of annual vacation time.
Baker spent her vacation weeks back in Kenya, encouraging women to help orphans and widows.
“Whatever we could do to help.” She said. “We would join them in whatever they were doing – bringing in the harvest, listening to their needs. Many had married into different tribes from their own and had different customs than those they were used to, and we could help them adjust. Because we knew their language, they trusted us.”
After 12 years of delivering mail, Baker retired from the Postal Service. A week after her retirement, she was back in Kenya, where she gathered a group of Kenyans to evaluate and address their most immediate needs.
They looked for which needs seemed most urgent and decided Uganda should be first on their list.
They had to figure out how to get there. Part of the trip was a walk over 14,000-foot high volcanic Mount Elgon. They found Ugandan women old-fashioned and weak. They kneeled to speak to others; they kneeled to serve food. The Kenyans helped them throw off some of their ancient shackles. The Kenyans shared their own stories to inspire the Ugandan women. They founded the first women’s conference to be run by women. They brought the women together and trained new leaders. The Quakers believe in teaching people to find their own solutions to their needs and problems rather than having outsiders do it for them.
“The people were always grateful that we came,” Baker said. “Their generosity, with little to spare, was amazing. One group insisted on giving us each transport money, a chicken and a piece of cloth.”
Baker visited me, dressed in a colorful skirt she had made from beautiful African cloth.
What are their needs? The Ugandans need bibles in Swahili – their native language, to learn English and leader training. In Tanzania, the people need to learn to use their local resources, to learn English and to establish women’s groups.
Baker returned to Kenya on Oct. 7 this year.
She will stay for somewhere from three to six months this time. She told me how her African friends celebrate Christmas.
“They spend the day singing,” she said. “No Santa, no malls, no gifts, unless maybe a new school uniform. Little children sing in Swahili; teenagers sing in English, and the old folks sing in their local dialect. They sing all day. There might be food, when available, and sugar cane, a treat for the children.”