My friend Irene Owens, who has died aged 102, was a typist, switch-board operator, air-raid warden, nursery nurse and one-woman aid provider to Zimbabwe after she befriended Sally Mugabe, the president’s wife.

Irene, known as Renie to her friends, first visited Zimbabwe in 1980 for a conference with the Moral Re-Armament movement (MRA), of which she was a member.

Following that, she wrote to Sally, the first wife of President Robert Mugabe, highlighting what she had learned on her visit. When Sally replied, she said women in the cooperatives needed sewing machines to provide an income. Renie returned to Zimbabwe the following year.

The two women became good friends. Renie eventually sent more than 500 sewing machines, donated by friends, as well as knitting machines, typewriters, measles vaccines and thousands of children’s books.

When Sally visited London in 1986, Renie welcomed her to her modest flat in Dulwich, south-east London. In 1990, Sally sent Renie an airline ticket to join the celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of Zimbabwe’s independence, as an honoured guest. On that visit, she met the villagers who had received her sewing machines. She was also interviewed as “guest of the week” on Zimbabwean TV.

Irene Owens in her south-east London flat with Sally Mugabe during a visit of the Zimbabwean president’s wife to the capital n 1986
Irene Owens in her south-east London flat with Sally Mugabe during a visit of the Zimbabwean president’s wife to the capital n 1986

Renie was born in Bromley, then in Kent, the third of four children of Edward Owens, who owned a printing business, and his wife, Louisa (nee Varcoe). Renie attended Beckenham county school for girls. She trained at the London Telephone Service and worked at the New Cross exchange.

Through her older sister Ethel, she encountered the 1930s Christian movement the Oxford Group, which became the MRA. This prompted her to re-evaluate her life and gave her a sense of purpose. She decided to stop eavesdropping on telephone conversations, at a time when connections were made by operators plugging in cables to sockets at the exchange. This impressed her colleagues and word got around that: “Owens has got religion.”

During the second world war, she trained as a nursery nurse at Hampstead College, which was attached to Swiss Cottage children’s hospital, and became an air-raid warden. Later she cared for the small children of people working with the MRA. I was one of those children. I remember lots of humour, laughter, trips to the beach and great cooking.

In 1960 Renie went to secretarial college to learn typing and book-keeping. She spent the rest of her career in a variety of roles – at the Inland Revenue in Bush House and then at the board of the Inland Revenue Registry in Somerset House. For 10 years she was secretary to the catering manager at the Westminster theatre arts centre.

After she retired, Renie developed her talents for dressmaking, cooking and cake decorations for weddings. Her love of life and sense of fun, strengthened by a strong Christian faith, were very infectious.

She is survived by three nieces, a nephew and two great nieces.

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