IT TOOK MY HUSBAND and me several years to figure out our retirement plan—and it wasn’t an issue of money. The nagging question: How were we going to live this new life? We had both had extremely demanding careers and we were ready to move on from the stress of our work lives. But the thought of sitting at home all day watching Judge Judy or stretched out on hammocks really didn’t appeal.
Our solution: We took a page from the playbook of high school graduates—and spent a “gap year” teaching in Africa as volunteers.
We worked with WorldTeach, a non-governmental organization founded at Harvard. We chose Namibia—a small country just north of South Africa on the Atlantic coast—for two reasons: It’s a relatively peaceful country and, although many tribal languages are spoken, the official language is English. We were placed on the northern border with Angola in a small town with unpaved streets, donkey carts sharing the road with cars, and a mixture of concrete houses, thatched-roof huts and tin shacks. And, yes, it was very, very hot.
When most people think of Africa, they think of extreme poverty, hunger and disease. Namibia certainly suffers from all this, along with water shortages, intermittent electricity and poor medical care. But while these hardships affected us at various times during the year, we also learned so much about the other side of Africa—the warm and wonderful people, the physical beauty of the wild animals and the bush, and the children like sponges, anxious to learn.
Seeing the poverty around us every day was the hardest part; it can be heartbreaking. Both of us had children in our classrooms who came to school dressed in rags or who hadn’t eaten in two or three days. I taught math and computer science in a secondary school with no books, broken desks and chairs, and chalk that friends of ours sent from the U.S. Despite all that, these children wanted so badly to learn. It was incredibly gratifying to see how serious most of them were about their studies—and to be able to help make that happen.
It turned out to be one of the best experiences of our lives. Besides enjoying the warm feelings that come from doing good, we learned to adapt to an entirely different culture, met extraordinary people and learned much about ourselves. Nine years later, we have twice been back to Africa for visits and are still in touch with some of our students.
The time in Africa also had an unexpected financial benefit: This first year of post-work proved to be an almost insignificant drain on our finances. The cost of living in Africa is less than half what it is here. We were also provided with housing and utilities, we had no car and we spent almost nothing on entertainment.
By the time we got back, we were ready for the more relaxed life of retirement. We still don’t lie around in hammocks much or watch daytime TV. We choose a mixture of activities that keep us active and engaged, while still leaving plenty of time for the beach. We also started a 501(c)(3) for African children. You can learn more at ReachingtheGoal.org.
Linda Fleit has been retired for nine years. She recently started a blog, Retirement for Baby Boomers.