How a birthday message from Safaricom earned 88-year old Kiplangat first plane ride

Mzee Kiplangat arap Koech

Mzee Kiplangat arap Koech on his flight from Eldoret to Nairobi to meet Safaricom representatives at Michael Joseph Centre. He is accompanied by Moureen Kirui, who works in the Safaricom shop in Eldoret.

Photo credit: Pool

If I had known what day it was, I would have worn dentures.

You see, I only have one tooth. A canine, on the left side of my upper jaw. I have learnt to love it and live with it. At 88, it has become a part of me, but I digress.

On April 20, I board a vehicle from Eldoret to Nairobi to visit my family and get help with my research. On a good day, I call myself an anthropologist. At my age, researching my culture as a Kalenjin man is what keeps me going.

It is 8:10 in the morning. The sky is partly cloudy, a breath of fresh air after the previous day's dull weather in Eldoret.

My phone beeps and vibrates. I don't like the ring tone. It is a little too loud for my taste, but I have yet to find a way to change it. I have a smartphone, but I only use it to receive calls, read messages and listen to the radio.

I reach into my back pocket and get the phone.

The screen protector is broken but I can still see through it, though. I have dropped my phone several times in the cowshed at home. Other times, when I bend down to pick something up from the floor, it falls and the crack widens. But it still works fine. I like that.

I unlock my phone.

The message is from Safaricom. "Hi Kiplangat! Happy Birthday! As you turn a year older, Safaricom is celebrating you with a special call rate..."

I cannot finish reading the message. I am stunned. I did not even remember that it was my birthday.

What a nice surprise.

None of my family had said anything. Not even my wife and four children. Okay, maybe my wife would have remembered, but she is ill and was probably in bed at the time.

I have mixed feelings. The realisation that I am 88 years old is quite overwhelming. I am getting old. On the other hand, I am touched that someone, somewhere, remembers me, thinks of me and chooses to celebrate me.

I have to do something. And fast.

The city of Nairobi has changed over the years. It no longer looks the same, but I still remember some of the streets. Moi Avenue is my favourite. Don't ask me why. I just know it like the back of my hand.

I used to be a police officer. I was first posted to Kericho town in 1952 and retired in 1993 with the rank of Senior Sergeant at the Nairobi Traffic Police Headquarters. It was during this time that I got to know the nooks and crannies of Nairobi.

I cross Kenyatta Avenue and head for the first Safaricom shop I see. It is the I&M branch.

I have to meet the person who sent me the message. I want to tell them how they made my day and bless them.

I was greeted at the entrance by a female guard, dressed in a black uniform with red trim around her waist and on her jumper. I found out later that her name was Nelly Olima. I quickly tell her why I am here. As we talk, I feel her height towering over me as she looks at me in disbelief.

She waves a customer service representative over to help. I tell him why I am here. I mention that I tried to reply to the message, but the reply did not go through.

By this time, almost everyone else is listening and they are all amused. The customer service representative listens and promises to help me meet my Joy Giver, we take pictures and I leave happy and hopeful.

A few days later, I am back at home in Tinderet, Nandi District, when I receive a phone call from a woman claiming to be from Safaricom. She says they want to meet me at their headquarters. I tell her no and hang up. These swindlers have no shame. So I think.

I have been fooled one too many times. I will not go down that road again.

Once I was conned by someone who claimed to be an engineer from Safaricom. He claimed that my sim card was not working. In my naivety, I gave him my Personal Identification Number (PIN) and date of birth. I later discovered that Sh3,000 was missing from my M-PESA and that he had also taken a loan of Sh8,000 from M-Shwari.

Another time, I was in a matatu and needed to top up my airtime. After buying a scratch card, I started punching in the numbers. Unbeknownst to me, someone sitting behind me had beaten me to it. They were fast with their fingers and had already entered the same numbers, so they stole my airtime.

So you can understand my reservations when I got the call from Safaricom.

The next day, the Safaricom representative calls me again and says they will send someone from their office to my home just to make me believe them. I flatly refuse. Instead, I go to the Safaricom shop in Eldoret town. Here I find out that I have not been duped.

After a quick chat with the team, we set off to plan the journey ahead. The emotions I had when I first read the birthday message come back. I cannot sit still. Then I find out that I will be getting on a plane to Nairobi!

Friday 1May 19: 7.30am.

Kiplangat arap Koech boards a plane for the first time.

Imagine that.

I am accompanied by Moureen Kirui, who works in the Safaricom shop in Eldoret. I could not sleep the night before because of the excitement. I am in disbelief. I regret that I did not believe the Safaricom representative's call earlier.

Sitting in a plane is beyond my wildest imagination. Flying above the clouds feels surreal. I cannot stop grinning. I am not an overly religious man, but I see this as God's doing.

Mzee Kiplangat arap Koech

Mzee Kiplangat arap Koech cutting his birthday cake at Michael Joseph Centre. He is assisted by Fawzia Ali-Kimanthi, the Chief Consumer Business Officer, and other Safaricom representatives.

Photo credit: Pool

We soon land in Nairobi and drive to the Michael Joseph Centre. Here I confirm that the Safaricom team really wants to meet me.

I am warmly welcomed and after breakfast I meet Fawzia Ali-Kimanthi, the Chief Consumer Business Officer. She introduced me to the team behind the message I had received. I also received thoughtful and functional gifts and we cut a huge cake with the Safaricom staff. I have never been so happy.

Safaricom really cares about me. They know me by name.

That was the highlight of my 88th birthday.