As one of the 40 plus golf course workers, commonly referred to as caddies, Bernard Karigu alias Pro, is among those haunted by the smell of freshly cut fairway grass at the 110-year-old – Nyeri Golf Club.
It is a place where he has known as his second home spending most of his day there but for now he can only peep through the K-apple fence to see the well-manicured greens.
It has literally become a case of too near yet too far as he cannot gain access to the bastion of exclusivity that is Nyeri club-the third oldest golf course in Kenya.
Playing off handicap six, Karigu earned himself the moniker, pro by offering golf lessons to new golfers at the club being an accomplished golfer in his own right.
A walk past the magnificent gate ushering you into the club, evokes fond memories of the good old days when Karigu could freely mingle with the golfers.
That was five months ago when he could take his strategic spot at the entrance of the club house waiting for the potential client to assist in navigating the nine-hole course- of course at a fee.
But with the scaling down of operations and the eventual closing down of golf courses across the country in the wake of Covid19 pandemic, the likes of Karigu have been left high and dry.
They have watched helplessly as their only source of livelihood was snatched away in the most painful way. There were no clear signs that things were moving in this direction but boom! It happened.
As a result, Karigu has been forced to look for an alternative source of income with his way of earning his daily bread as a caddy already in jeopardy.
Things have not been any better for the caddies as golf courses across the country start to resume operations albeit slowly.
Some golfers have opted to do their thing without the caddies and the fear out there among these assistants is that this might be the new normal.
For Karigu he has been forced to diversify and look for a new hustle and this has seen him head to Nyeri bus termini where he hawks candies and soft drinks to travellers.
Having been a caddy, for nearly his entire life, caddying is all he has known as employment. Karigu, never tasted formal education.
He would follow his brothers to the golf course, search for lost golf balls, which he would in turn, resell to interested golfers.
His brothers offered caddying services and that is how he later enrolled as a caddy, earning a paltry Sh15 for a round of 18-holes or Sh10 for 9-holes in the late 1970’s.
Never enough to sustain his own lifestyle, leave alone providing for his family, back then. With no contingency plan, at all or even savings.
And when Covid19 brought sporting events to a screeching halt, Karigu, being a daily wage earner, found himself in a catch-22 situation, unable to sustain himself and his family of six, thus venturing into hawking, but it hardly alters the grim picture.
“It’s been tough, after all these years, there’s nothing else I’ve known in terms of earnings. For over 36 years, the game of golf has been my source of livelihood.” Karigu says
“Unfortunately, I never thought this would come to such an abrupt end. I wish we had people to advise us earlier on saving for the future.” he adds
On a “good day”, Karigu will register Sh400 in gross sales, before heading back to the village, a distraught man but not before passing by the club, just in case, he hears of an impending food ratio distribution by a well-wisher. That can keep him going.
His story sums of the plight of caddies across the country who have found themselves of the receiving end following the outbreak of Covid-19.
Their trade has been hit hard leaving management of different golf clubs scratching their head on how to deal with the problem that has put many livelihoods on the line.
“My sincere appeal to Health CS Mutahi Kagwe is to allow us back to work and we promise to observe all the guidelines set in place to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.” pleads Karigu
Even as the world struggles with the enormous challenges presented by Covid-19, which are yet to be addressed, to allow for safe return to play and of particular interest is, what is being done to support those who work at these facilities that have been rendered jobless?
There was never a specific strategy, on how and what exactly was to be done, save for a raft of measures that were put in place by Kenya Golf Union.
KGU is the unified golf body in the country tasked with administering, operating and overseeing the development of the game of golf in Kenya.
Earlier, in March, at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, golf courses were closed as the government introduced a partial lockdown in Nairobi, Mombasa, Mandera, Kilifi and Kwale counties.
In addition, a dusk to dawn curfew across the country, which in essence, crippled as well as, affected several industries and its players.
With the suspension of handicaps, it meant that there were no longer organised golfing events at club level such as ‘Club Nights’ or even sponsored tournaments.
After extensive consideration of opening up golf facilities, between the KGU and the government, there was a gradual resumption of play.
Since golf, is a non-contact sport and due to the nature of the game, it is easy to practice social distancing.
In addition to adherence to several guidelines set out, still the courses needed minimum staff and as little human interaction as possible.
The first casualty in this directive were caddies. Yes, they had to go home! This was despite always being an integral part of a round of golf.
Initially, this was tough for golfers, both young and old as well as mixed-gender, who had always relied on their caddies to help them out with spotting, cleaning golf-balls.
For all this, they eked a living, earning between Sh250 and Sh500 to Sh500 to Sh1,000 for a round of 9-holes and 18-holes respectively, save for tips from big-hearted golfers.
Some earning, twice as much, depending on lady-luck if they managed to caddy for two rounds of golf in a day.
“As things stand, I can manage my round without a caddy. I’ve gotten used to it in their absence. I feel safer even,” James Mucheru, a golfer, opines.
According to Kenya Caddies National Association, with a membership of between 5000 and 7000 members, Patrick Kariuki, Chairman, said: “Golfers should get down from the pedestal they always operated from by doing away with, many of the ‘old rules’ and traditional behaviours and be more accommodative.”
Kariuki observed that some golf clubs have resumed caddy services, such as Windsor Golf and Country Club as well as Golf Park at Ngong Racecourse.
At Windsor Golf and Country Club, the services of caddies resumed after they undertook Covid-19 tests and were allowed back to the fairways.
Railways Golf Club has gotten into an arrangement to have thirty caddies report for duty, daily.
With one spotter per four-ball, often leaving some of them without work despite showing up. Which simply means no earnings for most.
Adding to their biggest challenge, for the past six months, no food, with some even homeless after being evicted from their rented houses for failure to pay rent.
While others have separated from their families for being unable to fend for their families.
Appeals by Kenya Caddies National Association to KGU for help, have not been responded to leaving them with nowhere to turn to for help.
But, outgoing KGU Chairman Anthony Murage says otherwise.
“Following the closure of caddied golf by the ministry of health a few months ago, we realised that our caddies would go through a rough period given that their source of income had been taken away.”
He goes on to add, “We negotiated with the ministry to allow us to use caddies in the various clubs, as ball spotters, which the ministry agreed to given that Covid-19 mitigating protocols were being observed in the process of ball spotting.”
At Karen Golf and Country club, things are differently better, thanks to a benevolent fund set aside, long before Covid-19 struck. The fund gives each caddy and support staff at the prestigious club, receives Sh2,000 weekly stipend, to help them afford basic needs.
“Most of us, as clubs also came together to continually raise funds to assist our caddies with the provision of basic groceries. Further, again as clubs, we encouraged our members to directly assist their regular caddies as consistently as possible.” Murage says
“I believe that this has gone a long way in assisting caddies who are also major stakeholders in our sport. We as a union shall be engaging the ministry at the end of this month, to discuss the possibility of our caddies getting back to work.” he adds