Dead man walking: How my employer declared me dead while I was alive

Joseph Kipchumba Kiprono

Joseph Kipchumba Kiprono holds letter declaring him dead from his former employer.

Photo credit: Ngina Kirori | Nation Media Group

It is the stuff movies are made of, only this time around it is real.

The unthinkable happened to Joseph Kipchumba Kiprono: His wife was asked to provide his details and the necessary documents so that his employer could process his death gratuity and benefits.

It was a surreal experience for him, reading that letter dated April 11, 2011, which effectively declared him dead while he was very much alive and kicking.

It was also frightening, coming just a year after the former immigration officer had practically fled from his former workstation after receiving death threats.

It was just by chance that Mr Kiprono saw the letter from his former employer, the then Ministry of Immigration, as it was addressed to his wife, Pauline Kipchumba. He happened to get it because the two were separated.

“I never expected to receive such a letter. It came at a time when I was not in the best shape mentally and it worsened things for me. Especially because it coincided with the death threats I had received one year prior to my transfer,” says Mr Kiprono.

At the time, he was stationed in Kolowa in Baringo county and he and his wife were still together.

He says a colleague approached him and warned him of danger.

“He told me that my life was in danger. He did not elaborate. His comments shocked me. I was vulnerable at the time since it wasn’t my home area. So, I requested a transfer to another workstation in Baringo,” says Mr Kiprono.

His request was approved in September 2009 and he was told to report to his new workstation in Churo, Baringo county, by November 2009. A note from the area chief confirmed that Mr Kiprono arrived in the area on November 26, 2009, and was allowed time off to transport his belongings and report back on duty in December.

He was just settling into his new life when he received the letter claiming he was dead on April 11, 2011. It threw him off balance. First the death threats, then the domestic problems with his wife, who had by the time left after 13 years of marriage, then this letter. All sorts of problems seemed to have come to camp in his life.

But first things first; he had to clear the air about his alleged “death”. He tried several methods of informing the ministry that he was alive, including making calls and sending letters, but for four months nothing happened.

On August 2, 2011, the area chief, William Chirchir, wrote to the ministry, asking the officials to correct their mistake.

Mr Kiprono swore an affidavit in court on August 4, 2011, declaring that he was alive and well. This flurry of activities seems to have provoked the ministry into action because it finally responded on August 10, 2011, asking Mr Kiprono to treat the matter as an error.

“We regret any inconvenience caused,” the ministry said.

However, this was not the end of the series of misfortunes assailing Mr Kiprono. In December 2011, he was dismissed from the civil service.

Joseph Kipchumba Kiprono

Joseph Kiprono at home.

Photo credit: Ngina Kirori | Nation Media Group

“I asked myself, what kind of life is this? A divorce, a letter saying I am dead, then a letter of dismissal.”

The letter dated December 15, 2011, said reports had been received that Mr Kiprono had deserted duty in October 2010, contradicting claims in another letter that the desertion was in December 2010. It said a show cause letter dated August 15, 2011 had been delivered to Kabarnet, the county headquarters, which Mr Kiprono did not respond to in the stipulated 21 days.

Another contradiction said his salary had been stopped in May 2011, yet in April 2011, the ministry believed he was dead.

He was given 42 days to appeal the dismissal notice, but he did not make the appeal.

“Most of the letters were sent to Ng’etmoi, my former workstation. However, at the time I was living kilometres away in Churo, so by the time I received the letters, it was too late to reply. I also felt overwhelmed," Mr Kiprono states.

"So much had happened so quickly. In November 2010, I requested two months off because I was going through a lot mentally. That is when they claimed I had deserted duty.

"Shortly after I resumed work, I received the letter claiming I was dead. Then I was dismissed from service. I just decided to let things go. It was too much.”

Sadly, two years after he was sacked, Mr Kiprono’s son, whom his wife had taken with her when they separated, died from malaria. His wife also later died.

“When my son died, I was not informed by my in-laws. I just happened to be in the area and got the news from someone else,” Mr Kiprono states.

He now practises small-scale farming to support himself and his daughter. He started farming after losing his job, in which he had served for 15 years.

Daniel Oliech, a public service and governance expert, says Mr Kiprono’s case is peculiar.

“The public service does not act on grave matters such as death based on hearsay. The civil service is a fairly structured institution. So, in the case of Mr Kiprono, the source needs to be interrogated. What would have happened in normal circumstances is that Mr Kiprono’s nearest supervisor would have been the one allowed to make an official report of his death. It takes something truly exceptional and extraordinary for a false report to go on record,” says Mr Oliech

He adds: “It is illegal for any person to make a false claim about a person’s death, especially formally by way of writing or any other record. It baffles one that this gentleman was alive yet a report was generated that he was dead. Something must have gone wrong, and fundamentally so. It could be one or two things. Probably there was a misreporting, confusion of names, or the report was driven by malicious intent.”

Mr Kiprono may have missed the window of opportunity to sue for compensation for being wrongfully declared dead, which legal minds say is within one year, as enshrined under the Limitations Act. However, he can file a constitutional petition over the claim he was dead yet he was alive as the Constitution gives every citizen the right to life.

Mr Kiprono’s case also raises questions about the mental health of those in the public service and whether enough is done to ensure they are taken care of.

“I must admit, historically and traditionally, focus on mental health has not been strong, not only in the public sector, but also in the private sector. The public service is moving towards a new position where it is beginning to appreciate the value of ensuring the welfare of its staff. A member of staff is only healthy when their mental health is also taken care of. The public service I know in the present day has a human face to it,” says Mr Oliech.

Mr Kiprono says he works hard on his farm to support his daughter.

“I want her to study and choose whichever course she wants. At the moment she is focused on being an athlete. But whatever she chooses to study, I will support her,” he says.

He is considering revisiting his case to see if there was any malice involved in his dismissal. He admits that it might be a long shot because a lot of time has passed. But he is willing to take the chance.

He is also planning to revisit the issue of his benefits after the Employment and Labour Relations Court gave sacked public servants relief on October 21, 2022, ruling that the workers are entitled to their accrued benefits. The court said that denying them their pension benefits is unconstitutional and a violation of the right to property.

The idea of an employed person being declared dead yet they are alive is rare. However, in India, a man named Lal Bihari created the Association for the Living Dead of India after the government declared him dead for 18 years.

He said the situation in India is common due to tussles over land, which often escalate when relatives bribe officials to claim a person is dead so that they can grab property.

Mr Bihari made several attempts to prove that he was alive, including visiting government offices and attempting to run for an election, but nothing was done about his situation. Eighteen years later, however, a new district magistrate in his area rectified the situation and gave Mr Bihari his land and life back.


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