Blockades offered retirement opportunities, and some didn’t like that

KAMPALA, UGANDA — In 2020, as the coronavirus continued to wreak havoc around the world, the monotony of lockdown left many worried. With nowhere to go, people were desperate for a diversion. They’ve turned to knitting, baking, crafting, anything to take their mind off it.

A similar thing happened to Aisha Nalyoga in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Before the pandemic, Nalyoga’s teaching job occupied her life. Then came the government-imposed lockdown that lasted two years. The 60-year-old woman had nothing to do with her days.

“It was terrible. Waking up to a long day and feeling aimless,” she says.

There was more to his situation. Nalyoga was two years shy of retirement and the lockout was a taste of things to come. “It gave me a glimpse of what lay ahead, some orientation,” he says.

The thought of such a future, a vast expanse of time with nothing to do, was excruciating. It didn’t help that the lockdown was still going on and no one knew when it would end. There was a chance it would coincide with his retirement. Nalyoga needed something to ease these worries. She found solace in weaving baskets and cleaning out a neighbor’s chicken coop in exchange for garbage, which she used as fertilizer to grow vegetables. All these hobbies paid off. Not only did they become a source of income for him, but they would also give him purpose in life after retirement.

About 4,000 civil servants in Uganda retire every year at the age of 60, said Fred Ojok Ongom, Assistant Commissioner of the Department of Compensation at the Ministry of Public Service. Most of them receive a substantial benefit and remain on the pension until death.

But even with the premium, retiring from the workforce remains a challenge, so much so that some are delaying their retirement age.

“They’re overwhelmed with too much time, too much freedom that they don’t know how to use,” Ongom says.

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Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda

Aisha Nalyoga, with a bundle of green onions from her garden in Kampala, Uganda, developed hobbies such as gardening and weaving that have given her life’s purpose in retirement.

Alan Muhereza, commissioner for human resources management at the Ministry of Public Service, says more than 2,000 people a year flock to his office to request to change their date of birth and delay their retirement. Some say they have found records that contradict the information they originally provided during the hiring process. While there are genuine cases that the ministry supports based on evidence, he says other people simply don’t want to retire.

Nasul, who asked that only his first name be used for fear of losing his job, was not ready to retire in 2021. Like Nalyoga, the epidemic blockade left him in dire retirement. It hurt his mental well-being, he says, because he had nothing to occupy his mind.

He should have delayed his retirement, but his approach was different. Nasul spoke to the head teacher of the school where he taught and asked him to stay at the school. Although he would be off the state payroll, the school would find a way to compensate him.

The head teacher, who chose to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, allowed it.

“This is illegal,” he says.

In a country where around 700,000 young people reach working age every year but the economy produces just 75,000 jobs a year, the head teacher said he knew the decision could have an impact on the job market, but that he had to help him.

Others bravely retire, but still find life difficult. When Boneface Ndengabaganizi retired from school in Kampala, he moved to Kamwenge, a rural town in western Uganda. After two years of retirement, life became unbearable.

“I went to 10 schools within my cycling distance to ask to teach French without pay, just [keep] I’m busy and I’m giving back to the community,” Ndengabaganisi says.

But it wasn’t as easy as he expected. No one was interested in his services because no school in the area taught French. Ndengabaganizi sought credit and bought a heifer that kept him busy.

“It restored faith in me. I found myself looking forward to each new day because there was something to do,” says the 78-year-old.

Hasfa Lukwata, the Acting Commissioner for Mental Health at the Ministry of Health, has come of age in retirement, fraught with challenges, particularly mental health challenges.

“There’s a lot going on in a person’s life that affects the mind,” he says. Children leave home to start their own homes and others leave the country. Friends are less and life is full of boredom. This is also a time to reflect on lost dreams, which can be difficult.

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Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda

Andrew Ntanda walks through a maize field. After retiring from teaching agriculture, Ntanda put the theory into practice to keep busy and earn extra income.

Andrew Ntanda, who retired from teaching eight years ago, says it helps if one prepares. “I was prepared for it. In fact, I found myself [busier] because then I could put all my theory into practice,” he says.

When he was still at work, Ntanda taught agriculture. Now he grows vegetables. “Now I’m not eligible for a loan, so I can’t get one,” he says, “but I’d like to develop my fish farms and start fish farming.” He also looks after a maize farm owned by the Uganda Agricultural Teachers Association.

“I was never redundant,” he says. “I come back tired, ready to sleep and start a new day.”

Nthanda says retirement is leaving public service to do private work.

Ongom agrees. Ugandans who are about to retire should consider farming, not necessarily to make money, but to keep busy and maintain human contact, he says, adding that it creates the appearance of a workplace.

Several public and private initiatives have attempted to ease Ugandans’ struggles with this transition. The country has about 60 retirement clinics that offer advice to workers who are about to retire, said Lydia Mirembe Senyonjo, communications manager at Uganda’s Pension Benefits Regulatory Authority. The government runs some and nonprofits run others, he says.

Ntanda says that before he retired, he attended clinics organized by his workplace, Mukono High School.

Some retirees have also created private initiatives to help each other make a smooth transition into retirement. Philomena Nabweru Ruabukuku, a former teacher, says she and her fellow retirees from Kampala’s Kololo High School set up a WhatsApp group to help each other navigate retirement life. It was the brainchild of two members who were bored with retirement.

Although the group, which has 68 members, works mostly virtually, members get together once a year in Kampala to have lunch, share retirement tips and check in with each other.

Member Ruth Nnam says the group has helped her find a market for her mushroom business, which members love. She also sells dogs and members refer potential clients to her.

Herbert Jackson Mugarura, who retired from Mulago Hospital in Kampala, says he had to pursue gynecology to keep busy. Before retiring, the 65-year-old saved enough to set up a private practice in his home. He still treats some of the clients he had before he retired, and others have referred him. He is rarely short of customers. To make sure he is aware of what is happening in his field, he reads a lot. “I keep consulting the books to see new research and innovations,” he says, adding that being one’s own boss in retirement is a wonderful thing.

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Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda

Former teachers of Kololo Senior Secondary School gather for an annual meeting in Kampala, Uganda. Retirees use the group to share advice on life after retirement.

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