A pedestrian-sized gate swings open into an expansive compound. The grass lawn seems well-trimmed, like someone deft with a lawn mower has been at work. There are little mounds of sheep dung and short wooden spikes hammered into the ground, for tethering sheep. There’s no stone-lined driveway with potted plants on the side. Village homes have distinct feet-beaten paths right from the road, to the front door.
I’m visiting my high school English teacher, now gracefully into his 11th year of retirement. He’s a neighbour, and for most of the last five years, he has been my village ‘Mbogi Genje’. We hang out. We talk, debate and argue slow afternoons into the sunset.
A few feet off the main door, he’s slouched on his cane, in a bare patch that holds lilies, daisy’s, and a couple of rose bushes. I call out, but he doesn’t light up. Mwalimu seems troubled.
“Someone stole my coconut tree seedling,” Mwalimu says.
He points to a gaping hole in the ground. Sure enough - there should have been a seedling there. It’d be fresh earth, but there’s been heavy downpour the previous two nights. Mwalimu cannot tell exactly when the coconut tree seedling was plucked. He turns, starts limping towards his veranda. Lately, the gout seems to be unforgiving. I follow, heartbroken.
Mwalimu settles on his favourite wicker chair, and rocks softly. I pick my usual chair, an identical one - facing him, slightly to his left. In happier times, his wife would be sitting here - sipping tea. She passed on six years ago. Mwalimu sighs. He’s visibly tired, and sad.
“Who steals a seedling planted on a grave? I buried Kartel there, you know,” the old man says.
Well, six years back Mwalimu had bought a puppy, after he’d lost his wife. Kartel had grown from a pouty puppy, into a sprightly, fiercely-loyal brown Golden Retriever. The old man had adored him for over five years. He’d been gored to death by one of his bulls.
Mwalimu’s daughter lives at the coast. She had sent him a few coconut seedlings ‘for the compound’. She didn’t know he had lost his beloved dog. She’s a nurse, visits once a year - and sometimes, skips. He had kept one, and given out the rest of the seedlings across the village.
I live in a tiny rural village, and it’s addictive. It’s the little things. It’s quiet, peaceful and beautiful. A city dweller will be hard-pressed to figure out a world devoid of blaring car horns, cursing touts and loud, aftermarket exhausts.
Remember your annual, ridiculously short one-week’s Christmas holiday visit to the village? When you’d wake up to clucking chicken, crowing roosters and mooing cows? The infinite, fresh air and home grown veggies? Well, that’s me on a daily basis!
The quiet and the solitude is the only downturn; else this village would be paradise. This village has eight homes, with three people on average living there. It’s mostly the elderly ,with their caretakers. Most people in my age group live and work in urban areas. A few neighbours are retired civil servants, and the rest are peasant farmers with coffee and tea farms. Most of these farms are fast becoming derelict.
To be in my mid 30’s and working from home in the village, it means there’s little company around my age. It’s me, and the retired Mwalimu - us against the world!
How far along in life are you? Are you in your mid-20s, mid-30s? Well, add three decades to that figure. I’d suppose that’s your probable retirement age. How do you see your life at that age?
As I rocked in my wicker chair looking out into a grass lawn peppered with wooden stakes - I thought about it. It’s very scary. At Mwalimu’s age, how will I survive?
How many kids will I have?
Will my kids live close - or care enough to visit a few times in a year?
Will I need a pet to keep me company if my wife passes on before I do? Will she need it, if I go first?
As I sat there, looking at my elderly friend, I realised he’d aged considerably in the last few weeks. Mwalimu didn’t want for much. He’d pretty much thought and planned for his retirement. He enjoyed a sufficient monthly income from his government pension, and a modest flow of income from a couple of rental units he had built at the market centre.
His wife had been a housewife, but she’d built an agribusiness venture with a monthly income thrice his teacher’s salary. She’d reaped tea and coffee profits, and as age took a toll on her - she invested in a dairy milk enterprise. By the time of her death, she had left a thriving dairy herd with a consistent monthly payment schedule at the local dairy farmers Sacco. Most of these payments had been converted into Sacco shares.
Since his wife’s demise, Mwalimu receives annual dividends from his wife’s shares at the Sacco. Besides, this arrangement comes with provision to apply for emergency loans. Sacco’s usually process emergency loans for their members on a short notice.
We sat in silence, on that veranda. I had time to reflect on my retirement financial plans, like Mwalimu. The problem is, Mwalimu's suffering is more emotional - loneliness - and, it didn’t help that they had invested into a four-bedroom village mansion.
The old man would stroll through empty halls, and made-up bedrooms. He knows loneliness by name.
Once, he’d told me of his visions as he built the mansion. He’d see himself screaming at grandkids ‘to stop running’ and ‘not scribble on the walls’ with crayons - but, hey, life happens. He’d told me that he had written his will, but didn’t divulge the details.
It didn’t need a college degree to figure out that his only daughter - who rarely visits or calls - would be the sole beneficiary.
A large section of my generation is in the early-parenting phase. I meet, and talk to random first-time parents. It’s never deliberate; but, these conversations inevitably drop hints of ‘investing in kids as part of my retirement plan’. I find that wrong, awfully misguided.
It’s prudent to make individual plans for stability, through to retirement. Your kids don’t owe you anything. At that time, they’ll have their own families with bills and goals to worry about.
In the modern world, a multi-generational home is rare. It’s unrealistic to demand of your kids to ‘drop everything’ and care for you. It’s time to start making solid plans for your retirement.
How can I spruce up Mwalimu’s Days?
It’s clear that loneliness is a retiree’s worst nightmare. It’s easier if an elderly person lives in an urban area. These are packed with lots of volunteer programs, activity-inclined groupings like book and hiking clubs. In a rural setting, well - not much for options.
For my friend, Mwalimu - well, I suggested a project aligned to his passion- dogs. The old man loves dogs. It’s a lucrative side-hustle, and very engaging. If he’d start a breeding project, he’d be very engaged, and companionship comes with the project. I even offered to partner!
For Kartel, he says. Let me think.