Lockdowns Offered Glimpse of Retirement — and Some Didn’t Like It

Faced with a vast expanse of time with nothing to do, some in Uganda's public workforce seek to delay the time when they stop working. Others find a new purpose.

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Lockdowns Offered Glimpse of Retirement — and Some Didn’t Like It

Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda

Aisha Nalyoga started weaving baskets when the pandemic prompted mandatory lockdowns across Uganda. She is retired now, and weaving baskets not only supplements her income but also keeps her busy.

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

In Kampala, Uganda’s capital, something similar was happening to Aisha Nalyoga. Before the pandemic, Nalyoga’s teaching job occupied her life. Then came a government-imposed lockdown that lasted two years. The 60-year-old had nothing to do with her days.

“It felt dreadful. Waking up to a long day and feeling purposeless,” she says.

There was more to her situation. Nalyoga was two years shy of retiring, and the lockdown was a taste of things to come. “It gave me a sneak peek into what was in the offing for me, some form of orientation,” she 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 ongoing, and no one knew when it would end. There was the possibility that it would overlap with her retirement. Nalyoga needed something to alleviate these anxieties. She found solace in weaving baskets and cleaning a neighbor’s chicken house in exchange for the waste, which she used as fertilizer to grow vegetables. All these hobbies paid off. Not only did they become a source of income for her, but they would also lend her life a purpose after she retired.

About 4,000 civil servants retire in Uganda every year at age 60, says Fred Ojok Ongom, assistant commissioner at the Ministry of Public Service’s Department of Compensation. Many of them receive a sizable gratuity and remain on pension until death.

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

“They are overwhelmed by too much time, too much freedom which they do not know how to utilize,” Ongom says.

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Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda

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

Allan Muhereza, human resource management commissioner at the Ministry of Public Service, says that over 2,000 people throng his office annually, requesting to change their date of birth and delay their retirement. Some say they have found records contradicting the information they initially provided during the hiring process. Although there are genuine cases the ministry approves based on evidence, he says other people simply do not want to retire.

Nasul, who requested to use only her first name for fear of losing her job, wasn’t ready to retire in 2021. Like Nalyoga, the pandemic lockdown left her dreading retirement. It damaged her mental well-being, she says, as she had nothing to keep her mind occupied.

She needed to delay her retirement, but her approach was different. Nasul talked to the head teacher at the school where she taught and requested to stay on. Although she would be off the government payroll, the school would find a way to compensate her.

The head teacher, who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, allowed it.

“This is illegal,” he says.

In a country where about 700,000 young people reach working age each year, but the economy produces only 75,000 jobs annually, the head teacher says he knows this decision could have an impact on the job market but that he had to help her.

Others walk boldly into retirement, but they still find life challenging. When Boneface Ndengabaganizi retired from a school in Kampala, he moved to Kamwenge, a rural town in western Uganda. Two years into retirement, life became unbearable.

“I went to 10 schools within the radius of my bicycle distance to ask to teach French without pay, just to [keep] myself busy and give back to the community,” Ndengabaganizi says.

But it wasn’t as easy as he’d hoped. No one was interested in his services, as no school taught French in the area. Ndengabaganizi sought a loan and bought a heifer, which kept him busy.

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

The retirement age, says Hasfa Lukwata, acting commissioner for mental health in the Ministry of Health, is saddled with challenges, particularly mental health challenges.

“There is a lot that goes on in the person’s life that affects the mind,” she says. Children leave home to establish their own homes, while others leave the country. Friends are fewer, and life brims with boredom. It 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 field of maize. After retiring from teaching agriculture, Ntanda put 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 had prepared for this. In fact, I found myself [busier] because then I could put all my theory into” practice, he says.

When he was still employed, Ntanda taught agriculture. Now, he grows vegetables. “I am not eligible for a loan now, so I cannot get one,” he says, “but I would like to develop my fishponds and begin fish farming.” He also takes care of a maize farm that belongs to the Uganda Agriculture Teachers Association.

“I have never been redundant,” he says. “I get back tired, ready to sleep and usher in a new day.”

Retirement is about leaving government service to do one’s private work, Ntanda says.

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

A few public and private initiatives have been trying to alleviate Ugandans’ struggle with this transition. The country has about 60 retirement clinics that offer advice to employees about to retire, says Lydia Mirembe Senyonjo, communications manager at the Uganda Retirement Benefits Regulatory Authority. The government runs some, and nonprofits run others, she says.

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

Some retirees have also set up private initiatives to help one another transition smoothly into retirement. Philomena Nabweru Rwabukuku, a former teacher, says she and her retired colleagues from Kololo Senior Secondary School in Kampala formed a WhatsApp group to help one another navigate retirement life. It was the brainchild of two members who were bored with retirement life.

Though the group — which has 68 members — mostly engages virtually, members gather once a year in Kampala to dine, share advice on retirement and check on one another.

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

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

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Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda

Former teachers of Kololo Senior Secondary School gather during an annual meeting in Kampala, Uganda. The retirees use the group to exchange tips on life after retirement.

Edna Namara is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda.