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‍Meet Mzee Njogu: At 72, His Grandkids’ School Fees Keep Him Awake at Night
‍Meet Mzee Njogu: At 72, His Grandkids’ School Fees Keep Him Awake at Night
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‍Meet Mzee Njogu: At 72, His Grandkids’ School Fees Keep Him Awake at Night

Kibaki Muthamia
October 6, 2022

The setting sun spills an orange glow between the trees, casting beautiful shadows on a bare courtyard. It's a typical village homestead with a couple of chicken picking scraps off soiled utensils in a large Sufuria that has seen better days.

Beneath a low-hanging 'apple' variety of mango fruit, an old man sits on a mortar. The pestle is propped against the trunk. This is Mzee Njogu, known locally as Daktari - a retired veterinary officer.

Daktari absently watches two kids squatting on the veranda a few feet away. They are caught in a heated argument. Basic arithmetic is not as basic as it seems. The arguments are partly fueled by last-minute pressure to complete holiday assignments. 

Typical Kenyans fighting deadlines! They are identical twins. 

Daktari and The Twins 

The school fee dilemma hangs over Daktari's mind. A half-drank cup of coffee on a low stool has run cold. Presently, a wave of warm affection floods his heart. These are his beloved grandkids. A bizarre sort of retirement gift from Rhoda, his youngest daughter. 

Rhoda is the last of his seven kids, and - well, the family's uncelebrated 'black sheep'. From infancy, Rhoda had always been unconventional. All her siblings had followed the textbook routine in progression - primary, secondary, college, and employment after graduation.

Not Rhoda. First, she had either dropped out or got expelled from a record six secondary schools. Her final score was not much to write home about - and, to add a red cherry to the cake - she got pregnant. The birth of the twins coincided with Mzee's retirement, at the age of 65.

Suddenly, Daktari and his wife were parenting a pair of newborns. He loved his daughter, and he fawned over his grandkids. Rhoda stayed home nursing the twins, but her restless nature had started biting.

After six months, she visibly flinched when Daktari suggested college. They would get a nanny, he said. Rhoda instead begged for some capital, to start a business. She was eyeing his lump sum! He indulged her, loaning her Ksh200,000. His wife was less than thrilled with the idea, and for a good reason.

Rhoda burnt through the capital in six months. She had opened a liquor outlet at the local centre. The collapse was partly due to inexperience, and a little to her apathy - she had ignored the need for proper licensing.

Rhoda returned home. After a few weeks of incessant rows, Daktari had called a 'crisis meeting'. Her sibling agreed to pool funds for her next business. Rhoda was ecstatic, swearing to be the next best thing in the secondhand clothes business. She moved to Nairobi.

She did make them proud, for a while. She had a stall at the sprawling Gikomba Market, in downtown Nairobi. She visibly had drive and tenacity at the start, or perhaps - painful lessons from her failed liquor business. She supported her twins and even paid for their school entry.

Then, she gradually went silent. Rhoda had walked into a draining relationship, and her business collapsed. For the last six years, Rhoda has been unable to measure up as a parent, leaving the financial burden on her retired father. 

Cash Flow in the Old Times

 Each of the twins' needs Ksh12,000 for the new term. 

Mzee Njogu stares over the slight incline on his farm. It's interspersed with mango, orange, tangerine, and macadamia trees in various stages of maturity. In two decades of retirement, he has transformed his farm into a lucrative fruit farm. There's an odd coffee tree in their midst, wistful relics of an era gone past - coffee was the golden cash crop.

Thanks to coffee, Mzee Njogu, and his generation had all successfully seen their children through school. He had 600 coffee trees. 

It was simple, then.

There was an arrangement between the local coffee society and local schools regarding school fee payment. Every school had a coffee farm - and an account with the local farmer's Sacco.

Coffee farmers with schooling children had an option to pay school fees, by weighing in their coffee produce into the school's account. As is customary, just a day after opening school, kids would be sent home for their school fees arrears.

Behold - school children would not go home. They would troop to the local coffee farmer's Sacco office, grab a receipt from the clerk showing the amount of coffee their parents have weighed into the school's account - and, walk back to class!

It was as easy as ABC! In this way, schooling in the '80s and '90s, even for large households was a walk in the park.

Then came plummeting coffee prices in global markets and draining cartels in local markets - the industry flopped. Income dried up. As the century turned in 2000, protesting coffee farmers around Mt. Kenya started uprooting coffee trees en masse, in favor of banana crops and fruit trees.

Mzee Njogu retired around this time and followed suit - investing in an orchard. 

Where is The Money?

In comparison, the banana crop and fruit trees post higher returns, and in greater frequency than the coffee trees. Besides, coffee payments were done twice annually with the infamous coffee bonus in December where the vibrant fruit market allows a monthly income.

As a government retiree, Mzee Njogu enjoyed a monthly pension consumer with his job group at the point of retirement - Ksh15,000. 

From macadamia, Daktari makes an average of Ksh10,000 monthly depending on market rates. Off-season, mangoes fetch high prices at over Ksh100/kg. He makes an average of Ksh10,000 monthly in season, and Ksh20,000 off-season. A sizable income came from weekly banana sales - which, due to inconsistent maturity times was quite hard to keep records of.

How Cash is Swallowed 

On a monthly average, Daktari earns Ksh30,000 from his farm, and Ksh7,000 from his pension. The other part of his pension funds a 10-year education insurance policy he had taken for the twins, now in his 3rd year.

 That's a good solid figure for a retiree, except, the money is nowhere to be found!

A part of the income sinks into recurrent household expenses - food, detergents, and the weekly cleaning lady. A portion is taken up by fertilizer and insecticides for the orchard. 

The bulk of Daktari's income is swallowed by his wife's project. She often extols him to buy feeds for her flock of layers, and a pair of dairy goats. She supplies eggs to a local school every week and surplus milk to a local hotel. She's paid monthly for both, to her local Sacco account.

That's the direction Mzee's train of thought seems to take. His wife's Sacco affiliation gives her access to an emergency loan!

But, how?! She's a good saver, quite astute with her money! 

She'll seize that moment to scold him on his 'Bad Weekend Habits' and 'Bad Friends'.

Like every retiree, Daktari needs the company of his peers. On Fridays and Saturdays, the elderly gang meets up at their favorite local. A bit of politics, social trends, and a few drinks to oil their throats have a lot of good! His wife disagrees.

Mzee knows it's time to bring her some liver. She loves fried liver! 

Kibaki Muthamia is a creative non-fiction writer with over three years in narrative-style content writing, SEO, digital marketing and social media copywriting. Away from writing, if you don't find him volunteering with St John's Ambulance, he's weaving spoken word and poetry at the Kenya National Theatre. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.

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