The forgotten elderly of Mt Kenya: "Our children have disappeared in Nairobi'
The vagaries of drought are evident in the expansive plains of Kieni, Nyeri County. Withered crops line the dusty road that leads to a newly established home for the elderly as the Nation seeks to highlight tales of neglected old people in society.
Esther Njoki is the newest member at the Mt Kenya Upendo home for the elderly. She is chatty, jovial and always on the move. The caregivers have to ensure the gates are always locked lest she slips out unnoticed.
Njoki has dementia and can neither make sense of her surroundings nor recall her name, age and where she is from.
Before she was rescued, she wandered the villages of Kiawara, many times covering kilometres with no means or knowledge of how to get back home. This subjected her to endless days of hunger and abuse from people who pretended to help her find her way home.
Her story is a carbon copy of dozens of others living at the home that was opened last year, and where the elderly tell tales of loneliness and despair.
Some are homeless and ill, not knowing who they are, their home, or their relatives. They have been rescued from shanties, forests and streets.
A 70-year-old man with a neurological disorder spent three nights in the cold after being abandoned by his caregiver on allegations of practising witchcraft in Meru County before he was taken to the home.
Kariuki had worked as a farmhand in Kieni since he was a boy, herding cattle and carrying out other farm duties. When old age stopped him from working, his employer let him go. But he knew no other home, even with relatives in Othaya.
"He kept going back to his employer until they were forced to bring him here," says John Mbai, the founder of the home.
Kariuki died at the home last week.
Family feuds, sickness and childlessness are some of the reasons the elderly men and women offered as to why their families had cut them loose.
Most old women without children are chased out of home so that they cannot inherit the land from their parents. The same goes for women who are unmarried, even if they have children.
Erastus Mwaniki, 80, has lived alone for more than three decades. Years ago, he left home for work one day and did not return. His wife then left her matrimonial home with their children, and by the time Mwaniki went back, he found an empty house waiting for him.
“It has been hard since there was no food or anyone to lean on. I returned after years of work outside home to find no one. Efforts to get them back have been futile because it seems they want nothing to do with me,” says the former teacher.
Mwaniki is withdrawn. It takes quite an effort to get him to share his story or interact with the rest.
He insists on the need to “stretch his legs” outside the home. “I have nowhere to go, but I would like to occasionally leave and come back.”
At the home, the residents are assured of a meal, clothes, a bed, and medical care — free of charge.
Mbai says the home can host between up to 50 people. He started it after numerous encounters with neglected elderly people who were at the mercy of well-wishers.
Their main problem is hunger, financial constraints, illness, and psychological stress, which leads to isolation, loneliness and poor hygiene, he says.
“Life expectancy in the country is high. The family support that existed traditionally for the elderly is no longer there due to economic challenges and globalisation, which has seen people move to foreign countries, contributing to neglect by the families,” he says.
The home runs on an annual fundraising that pools resources together for medical care, food and infrastructural development.
Once he takes in an elderly person, Mbai initiates a tracking process for their relatives to see if they can be rehabilitated back into their homes. He also consults families on how and where the residents will be buried when they die.
"Most of the time, I have the blessings of their relatives. Some do not want their association at all, while others collect the body from morgues once they die, but a majority are buried at the cemetery,” he says.
With the government’s initiative for a social protection fund for the elderly dubbed Inua Jamii, some recipients of the money have been facing financial abuse through extortion and control of the money, many times forced to give it away.
Those who have a source of income, however meagre, are many times exploited, forced to take care of relatives.
Cecilia Waiganjo, 78, hails from Kangari in Murang’a County. Besides tilling her land and her neighbour’s farm for a Sh300-a-day wage, she also weaves baskets for sale. She lives with her grandchildren whom she has to educate, clothe and feed, with no help from their parents.
Under an avocado tree in a village in Kigumo, a dozen or so elderly women gather to weave baskets for money, but also for the company. They are the unlikely breadwinners for their families.
A majority are either widowed or divorced and they also take care of their grandchildren, many of whom have been ravaged by alcoholism.
“As we speak, the men are asleep and drunk … they cannot even lift a jembe (hoe) and work, which means we also have to feed them. There is no food in the farms due to failed rainfall. It is a sad situation and a dangerous trend,” says Waiganjo.
The women rely on the Inua Jamii Fund to buy the warps and wefts for their baskets.
“We are in the process of registering this group so that we can access support from the government and even sell our products and leverage on the profits by selling them as a group,” says Wanjeri Kamau, the group’s representative.
They sell the baskets at Sh2,000 and Sh3,000 each, depending on the size. It takes about two weeks to complete one basket, and up to three months if the weaver has other more urgent tasks.
“We do not have a market … we make them with the hope that we will eventually get a buyer,” she explains.
Afflicted by ailments such as arthritis, diabetes and other chronic diseases, many of the elderly people are unable to work for a living.
The Kenyan Constitution identifies anyone aged 60 years and above as an old member of the society, and according to the Kenya Population and Housing Census 2019, this population is growing rapidly.
The statistics indicate that the ageing population grew from Sh1.9 million in 2019 to 2.7 million in 2019.
The county with the least elderly people is Nairobi at two per cent, and Mombasa, Garissa and Wajir at three per cent. Mandera and Makueni are at nine per cent, while Tharaka Nithi and Vihiga are at 10 per cent. The counties with the biggest ageing populations are Nyeri and Murang’a at 11 per cent each.