Paying the Taxman

You don’t know when it happens. One day you are the small human being who needs him, and the next you are the same height. And then he needs you.

There’s something to seeing your parents age that’s scary. My old man turns 70 in two months, and too much has changed. He smiles a lot more, makes small talk, and even cracks a joke once in a while.

But how did he not always know everything? The same man who would get off a matatu at OTC and walk, with me struggling to keep up, all the way to Mamlaka Hill. It seemed like magic then, knowing this city in the floods so intricately. The same man who could sharpen a pencil while walking (this is harder than you think).

A few years ago, I finally stopped playing around with my science degree. My old man insisted on giving a speech at the small shindig after, and launched into those embarrassing stories I’ve only heard other people’s fathers tell. How I cried endlessly the first day he took me to school, and he couldn’t work properly because he was worried. A few months after that first day, that same caring man locked me in his bedroom after I refused to go to school. Such disciplinary measures could be frowned upon now, of course. But I didn’t, until mid-campus, ever even miss a class after that. If that’s not effectiveness then I don’t know what is.

While filling this Q and A for Hapa Kenya a while back, it hit me how much of an influence that aging man has been to my art. It was his history and literature books I first pore through, repeatedly. His red pen that destroyed my compositions with such words as “tense”, “structure”, and “can do better!” Trust me, the last thing you want is a parent who marks compositions for a living, marking your composition as homework.

He seemed so stoic and confident then. So sure of himself and the world. It was in his gait, in his hairline. In the way his voice boomed across the house and we all went quiet. The way he would refuse to talk about anything while he was eating. His exact statement would be, and I heard this too many times “Uudu kwodu” (one thing after another).

Protocol. One thing after the other. Now we eat, then we digest, and then we talk about whatever it is you want to talk about. For all of five seconds.

He still doesn’t make conversation when he’s eating, unless he absolutely has to.

I made the offhand comment to him a while back that since its tax season, I wouldn’t mind helping him with his returns. He’s always been a cagey old man, so I didn’t think he would bite. But he did!

For an entire two weeks, he called, and asked, incessantly, when we would do it. Residential income tax is a thing now, and guys like him have never had to pay for such things. But now the taxman has been calling up some of his mates, and the old man doesn’t like to run afoul of the law.

I saw this a while back in Naivasha.

I was arrested driving at 80 on a 50kph stretch, around the stretch called Kayole. We were on our way to Elburgon, between Njoro and Molo, to bury my mum’s sister. In the car, the parents, an auntie, and me. My mum was seated right behind me urging me to speed up, as if the main guest had other places to go.

So I get stopped at Naivasha and commandeered to the police station. We let the ladies drive on, as much as the main guest has nowhere to go, funerals aren’t things you want to get late to. Then it was just my old man and I. Or rather, me in the dock and him on the plenary. He looked straight at the magistrate; the one time we made eye contact, I think I caught a glimpse of what I thought was worry.

How does a man who’s always had it together be worried about an adult son with a traffic offence? But he was. After my attempted smartass pleas with the magistrate, I owed the court 20k. 20 thousand bob on a cold weekday morning in the middle of the month. Because speed limit ni cia nyukwa?! (Do speed limits belong to your mother? To rephrase our president a few years back).

That moment was awkward. When you are a man’s only son, he teeters between teaching you independence and taking care of you. I last asked him for money, for anything, a month before I turned 19. Yet here I was, a guest of the state. Its how stoically he pulled it off that still fascinates me. He had most of that money and chucked it out of his pocket without a second thought. And it wasn’t a loan, he added, once he had worked his way past the fat hungry bailiff.

“You know you’ve never had to bail me out before,” me, trying to make light of the situation as we walk out.

“Let’s not make it a thing then,” him, with a dead serious face with only a hint of a smile.

One evening months later, as the ladies gossip at the dining table, I try to explain Residential Income Tax to him. It’s fascinating, trying to teach a former teacher. He really wants to learn, but there’s the small fact that I came from his balls.

“It’s 10 percent dad, on gross rent.”

“Wait, not on the profit margin?”

“Nope, on the total you earn. But it’s only on the residential income tax.”

“Waaaaaitwhat about the commercial ones? What about semi-commercial ones?”

“Nope, nothing. Only on residential ones. And there’s a waiver that’s expiring. The KRA tax applies to 2014 and 2015 taxes, with waivers if you declare everything you’ve earned in that time.”

The tax is fairly new, having been a part of the new amendments to Section 6A in the Income Tax Act. It only applies to people who earn ten million bob or less per year.

“Eh, so if I earned more from those houses I wouldn’t have to pay that tax?” He says as he leans back.

“You’d pay a tax, just not that one.”

He looks up, adjusting his spects and sighing.

“Alright, when are you coming so we can get it done?”

A few weeks later, I pack up my laptop and printer and drive home. We sit through a few blackouts, and a long contract negotiation I’d stupidly postponed to that evening. By the time we are properly getting to it, its 11:30pm, way past his bedtime. And that’s when he starts dozing off. As I teach him!

Oh how the tables turn!

He struggles to look like he’s still awake. Every time my voice trails towards him, he opens his eyes and tries to sit back straight. I can see myself, decades ago, struggling to stay awake as he tries to explain why the composition I handed him needs improvement. Or why I still insisted on eating the whole burger instead of carrying it home.

I drone on anyway. Making small talk, asking my student engaging questions. And telling him fun facts about this age when you don’t have to queue at Times Towers to give the government your money. He still has the old physical KRA pin card, issued in 1994-he had been working for two decades then-and that takes 30 minutes of the conversation.

As we sit there though, something funny happens. A KRA official appears on Inooro TV and describes the entire iTax process in rather terrible Kikuyu. It’s not bad in that he can’t speak the language, it’s that he’s thinking in English. But then again the name for tax in Kikuyu is “igoti” which could also mean “coat” or “court.” You could wear it, pay it or be charged in it. Imagine my dismay when the old man sits up straight for that one, while he’s been sleeping off my entire lesson.

June is tax season. And here’s how this goes. We wait until the last day, it’s what the Bible says. “On the last day of tax season, we shall all gather on the iTax system and try to frantically file our returns.” Then we will sing and rave and rant, and ask our guy whether he knows a guy, or a girl in KRA. Someone who can get this thing done because we are just law abiding citizens who like to live on the edge.

Jua kali people like me will run around wondering where we kept the receipts and whether Uber e-receipts count. And why we didn’t finish accounting school.

Funny, despite paying for it, my old man has never asked what happened to accounting school. I half-expected him to ask as I sat there filling in his rent returns. But it was already an awkward situation of the student becoming the teacher.

As I pack up my things, way past midnight, he suddenly sits up and asks “Did I ever tell you Githu Muigai was my student?” Show off!

To file your tax returns, go to the iTax portal here. Or join this conversation on Twitter with tax experts.

To learn more about the Residential Income Tax (so you can teach your parents too), see this PDF.

Owaahh, 2016.

One story is good,

till Another is told.