Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Africa’s Oldest Pupil

This is a story I saw in last week’s Kuwait Times, but I can’t get it out of my mind. This humble man, with his ongoing search for knowledge, is an inspiration to me.

Source: Reuters

(This story is part of a special report on education in Africa, issued on Nov. 15)
By Andrew Cawthorne

ELDORET, Kenya, Nov 15 (Reuters) – With his stubbly grey beard and walking stick at his side, 86-year-old Kimani Maruge looks a little out of place among the rows of children sitting behind wooden desks at Kapkenduiywo Primary School. Yet classmates 10 times his junior would be hard-pressed to match the enthusiasm of Maruge, a farmer and veteran of Kenya’s 1950s anti-colonial Mau Mau revolt, who has the distinction of being the oldest pupil on the planet.

“I will only stop studying if I go blind or die,” Maruge says at the crowded school in a poor neighbourhood outside Eldoret in Kenya’s western farmlands.

The illiterate great-grandfather – who has outlived 10 of his 15 children — jumped at a belated chance to educate himself when President Mwai Kibaki introduced free primary schooling in the east African nation in 2003.

Enrolment across Kenya shot up overnight, with 1.2 million more children going to school. Kapkenduiywo had 375 pupils before Kibaki’s measure, and now has 892.
But there are none quite like Maruge. He says his inspiration came from listening to a preacher in church and suspecting he was misinterpreting the Bible.

“I wanted to go to school to be able to read the Bible for myself,” he says, tucking his long legs under a tiny, shared desk at the front of his overcrowded classroom of 96 pupils. “And in case there is ever any compensation for us Mau Mau, I would like to be able to count my money properly at the bank,” he adds with a large grin.

PERSISTENCE PAID OFF
When he first turned up at the school gates in regulation knee-length socks, cut-off trousers and navy blue jumper, Maruge was greeted with laughter. Teaching staff tried at first to direct him to adult education classes. But when he returned again and again, they realised he would not be deterred, and anyway there is no legal age-limit for primary school entrance in Kenya.

“Inside me, when I saw him there, I felt he was serious,” says headmistress Jane Obinchu. “And look at him now. Nearly three years later, he’s still here. He’s over the most difficult part, he won’t drop out now.”

In the classroom, Maruge’s favourite subjects are Swahili and maths, but he struggles with English which is new and strange to him. He is treated like any other schoolboy except for one privilege: tea at break. Fellow pupils treat him with care and respect, and love to listen to his tales of Kenyan history between classes.

“He tells us about the Mau Mau,” says Ireen Wairimu, 11. “And about the time when white kids used to go to school under a roof while African kids sat under trees.”

Hobbling on a foot he says was disfigured when he was tortured by British colonial captors during the Mau Mau revolt, Maruge cannot keep up with all the playground games. But he watches with relish and is always surrounded by chattering kids.

“They are my friends, they love me, they help me walk home,” he says. “I want to break the barriers between old and young.”

INTERNATIONAL POSTER-BOY
Known in his neighbourhood as “Mzee” – a Swahili term of respect for an elder – Maruge is happy to show off his new knowledge, reading passages of the Bible slowly and clearly in front of his house after school. Although still living humbly, Maruge has become a national celebrity and something of a poster boy for free education campaigners worldwide. Last year, he was feted at the United Nations in New York. This year, a Hollywood crew are working on a film about him.

“School has changed him. He looks younger and happier, rejuvenated by getting a second chance in life,” says headmistress Obinchu. “He calls me his mother, but I am the age of his daughters. He is an inspiration to all of us.”

Despite his advanced years, Maruge has plenty of dreams for the future. “I won’t stop. I want my name one day to be Professor, Doctor Kimani!,” he says, holding his books close to his chest. “Liberty is learning, you know.”

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November 28, 2006 - Posted by | Africa, Generational, Kenya, Language, News, Social Issues

2 Comments »

  1. What’s amazing here is how he seems like a learned man already even though he didn’t have proper schooling. I guess it’s the depth a person gets from life experience. Liberty is learning…nice.

    Comment by 1001 Nights | November 28, 2006 | Reply

  2. 1001 :-) He knows a secret, doesn’t he? And he is willing to pay the price – wear the school uniform, what ever it takes to reach his goal. And you can tell, this man is enjoying the PROCESS, the getting there. . . I love this story!

    Comment by intlxpatr | November 28, 2006 | Reply


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