Could golf caddies be the unsung economic heroes?

Caddies follow players during Barclays Kenya Open 2015 Golf tournament at Karen Golf Club. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

The sun is setting in the year 2018. The year had its ups and downs. All we know is that each of us played his or her role in turning the reluctant wheel of progress.

Like in war, the generals take the credit but soldiers do the fighting. In the economic front, the top managers, the board and supervisors take credit often announcing firm results with lots of fanfare and publicity.

The workers who made the difference rarely see the limelight. One exception is in Germany where they are represented on the board. Should we have workers on our boards?

The credit is often monetary with higher pays, bonuses and fringe benefits. It is another debate if the benefits are always commensurate with the efforts one puts into work.

Economists, human resources managers, sociologists and politicians such as Karl Marx have debated this issue for generations.

That debate is not about to die. The real workers, the grinders get much less credit beyond the end of the year party.

One of the soft underbellies of our socioeconomic system is matching our economic contribution to our economic productivity. That mismatch might be partly contributing to nepotism. 

We dedicate this festive season to all the workers who sweated to create Kenya’s GDP. Some sweated in the sun like farmers, others in the shade like receptionists.

Some even died to work. We should never forget them.

In 2018, we celebrate caddies, a category of workers who rarely get credit for their hard work. When golfers get their trophies, they rarely thank their caddies for winning prizes.

Media reports also leave out caddies. What if something like “John Addul won the overall prize and was caddied by Lucy Kamau.”

Interestingly, we know the names of caddies who assist great golfers like Tiger Woods. Even fewer golfers need to “show off” their caddies. Caddies like foot soldiers are fighters in the prestigious game of golf. 

Golf paraphernalia

They not only carry the 10kg golf bag containing irons and other golf paraphernalia for four hours, but they also look for balls in the bush and show the golfers the direction the ball rolls depending on the adulation of the greens.

In whispers, some caddies are punching bags for golfers when they play bad golf. Caddies are a diverse group; from young to old, from clean to dirty, from those who smile to those who scare you with their looks.

From tall to short. For the ladies, from beautiful to not so attractive.

In the last ten years, caddying has gone through transformation attracting more women to its ranks. In fact, our parliament should learn from caddies in implementing the two-thirds gender rule. At Vetlab Golf Course, ladies make about 30 per cent of the caddies.

Lack of jobs and the common trend where women are invading once men’s domain is attracting women to caddying.

Mzee Onesmus Kinandu (now 86 years old) who golfs in Nyahururu and first caddied in 1943 in Nyeri for five cents for the round of golf, informs us that women caddies are a recent phenomenon.

Gender apart, caddies are some of the most unusual workers in Kenya. They work for the rich and affluent but the trickledown effect is rare. Their upward mobility is constrained.

One caddy, George Muchina, from Vetlab Golf Club, Upper Kabete has worked for over 40 years in the same position. 

It could be that the game is addictive and regular income though not much keeps the caddies around the courses.

Some caddies rise through ranks and become great golfers.

In rare cases, some lady caddies get spouses among the golfers and their lives change for the better. One misconception is that caddies are uneducated and irresponsible.

Most have a high school education, even university graduates caddy part-time. The fact that a few caddies are intoxicated does not mean all caddies are drunkards or irresponsible.

Some have families and use the money raised in caddying to raise families and help turn the reluctant wheel of progress.

Job losses

The mostly young men and women earn an honest living. We should support them.

The fourth industrial revolution will lead to automation and job losses. But it is unlikely that caddying will be automated.

Some golfers use motorised carts instead of caddies. But you can’t talk or smile to a cart.

Caddies humanise golf. No wonder most golfers have dedicated golfers.

Caddies fee is high in developed countries leading to self-caddying or use of carts.

We could follow suit in Kenya soon. For now, their supply keeps the fee low.

The fact that caddies interact with Kenya’s who is who in golf courses gives them a special status. Paradoxically, they have access to power and affluence, but like a water pipe that carries water without drinking, they do not get that political or economic power.

That access or admiration might be motivating enough. It is prestigious to say, “I caddy for Minister or Governor.” In all, they do a great job and make golfer’s work easier.

As we celebrate this Christmas, we hope caddies will remain dedicated to their duty and will make 2019 a prosperous year in their own small ways.

-The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi

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