Our Village Voices series shares research findings into Kenya’s Inua Jamii Senior Citizens’ pension scheme and what it means to one Rift Valley community. In this blog, Sarina Kidd discusses the experiences of a recipient of the Older Persons Cash Transfer.
Miriam is seen as one of the lucky ones in the community of Lokeringet, in Nandi County. For the last three years she has been a beneficiary of the Older Persons Cash Transfer (OPCT) programme, a 2,000 Shilling (around USD $20) transfer targeted at the poorest older persons in Kenya.
In Lolkeringet community, only nine people out of around 100 older people qualify for the programme and the inclusion of Miriam hasn’t gone without complaint. Other elderly villagers couldn’t understand why they hadn’t qualified for the scheme too. They too were poor, weren’t they? Miriam didn’t seem so different to them – how could a government official decide that she was more deserving?
“I received a lot of negative comments from the community,” Miriam told me when I visited her in her home. “People were questioning how I was selected. They felt that not enough people were chosen.”
But this is now all going to change. With the Kenyan government’s introduction of the Inua Jamii Senior Citizens’ pension, everyone in the village – indeed, everyone in Kenya – over the age of 70 years has started to receive 2,000 Shillings a month. There will be no more community-based targeting. No more government officials conducting proxy means tests to determine who is the poorest in the village. And, importantly for Miriam, no more criticisms from her peers.
Miriam, who is 83 years of age, is no longer able to walk and so we conducted the interview in her bedroom, a dark room made of mud and cow dung. It hadn’t yet started to rain, and the sun was creeping out from behind the clouds. A short but imposing woman, Miriam was eloquent and instructive and, when she spoke, her entire family stopped to listen. It was clear that she was well looked after, with frequent deliveries throughout the day of food and tea and companionship in her room.
Before the interview started, she gathered her family around her to pray and welcome me to her home. A deeply Christian woman, she had converted when she was a young girl, after her father died and her mother allowed her to go to missionary school. This led to a lifetime devoted to the religion during which she awoke every morning at 3am to pray. Christianity had shaped her attitudes towards traditional Nandi practices: for example, while many older women had conspicuously large ear incisions, inscribed as part of a traditional rite of passage, Miriam didn’t as she’d had an operation to close them.
Miriam married another Christian and they spent their lives preaching. Life became harder for the couple once they had children and they struggled to provide for them. During the interview, Miriam expressed regret that her twelve children had been unable to accomplish all that they had hoped to achieve. Although some had once had jobs, they were now all subsistence farmers on their own land, selling only their leftover maize and milk.
After Miriam’s husband died in 1990 she lived alone. She had no income sources and relied on her sons – who lived in the neighbouring houses – for financial help and to provide food and care, despite their own struggles. But this all changed three years ago, when the Beneficiary Welfare Committee gave the government a list of 10 houses that they thought could qualify for the OPCT. (The quota for the region is small as Lolkeringet was not deemed to be one of the poorer areas of the Nandi County). Government assessors then visited the households and conducted a proxy means test to determine who was poor enough. Miriam, who was living alone at the time, made the cut.
Suddenly, Miriam was no longer as reliant on her sons. The 2,000 Shillings a month covered 50% of her consumption costs and she was able to buy herself food and soap without putting so much pressure on her sons. This safety net proved to be a lifesaver for the entire family when in 2017, Miriam broke her hip. Her son, Sila, spent 40,000 Shillings (US$400) buying equipment for an operation but the family was later told that she was too old to have the operation. The equipment remained with the hospital but the family was not reimbursed the money. Without the steady influx of the pension, the burden from this shock would have been much greater.
After this, Miriam moved in with Sila and it was in his house that the interview took place. Money is tight for the family. They can afford iron roofs, but not concrete walls for their house. They struggle to pay school fees but were able to give me tea when other families could not because the cost of sugar was too high. When Miriam lived by herself, she decided how the money was spent but since moving to Sila’s home, the cash transfer supports the needs of the entire household.
Having benefited from the OPCT, Miriam expressed great happiness that the government was implementing the universal Inua Jamii pension.
“Old age is old age,’ she told me, ‘and everyone is deserving. It shouldn’t be selective, we should all be receiving the pension. It’s the responsibility of the government. The young should respect us as we are old and assist us in this way.”
And this was true from what I’d seen in my interviews. During my week in Lolkeringet, I observed all types of living situations, from older persons being the main carer in the family to being the ones cared for; from those with no land or very little at all to those with large plots; to those who can only eat one meal a day to those who can eat whenever they want. But what was clear was this: everybody in the community – from those living in poverty to the relatively wealthy – would benefit from a regular, stable pension. They were all excited about it. They all had plans. They were all struggling, in some way, to make ends meet. In short: every older person is deserving of a pension and it’s the government’s duty to provide it.
My interview with Miriam and her family lasted for four hours as we discussed all manner of things, from the OPCT itself to how traditions had changed in the community over her lifetime. As the interview drew to a close, and we sat there drinking our tea, I asked Miriam what three things she would say to the President if she were in a room with him.
She thought for a moment, as her family looked on, interested to hear her response. Then, in her careful, exacting voice she said:
“First I would ask: ‘Why is the amount so small? 2,000 shillings is small compared to our needs.’ Then I would ask: ‘Why is the age limit 70 for the pension instead of 65? People are old at 65. They’re also in need.'”
There was a pause, as she looked back at me. Then she tilted her head, smiled and said, proudly:
“Finally, though, I would like to thank the President for the pension. Although it is small it has changed my life and helped me a lot. So, thank you.”