Inside the typically rustic classroom stands a chalkboard nailed onto the wall. Scribbled on the board are five incomplete English grammar sentences. The earthen floor is cold and uninviting to the feet. Long roughly hewn wooden off-cuts form the walls of the classroom, which has only one tiny window.
As he walks into the crowded classroom, hordes of giggling children, most of them 74 years younger than he, mill around him, some playfully stroking the white tufts of hair on his head. He smiles at them and indulgently pats their heads as he slowly makes his way to the wooden desk and chair placed right at the front of the class. On his right is a bright eyed six-year-old boy proudly reading aloud one of the sentences on the board. His desk mate, a chubby cheeked girl aged seven, with a mischievous glint in her eyes, suddenly pinches him on the back, and he lets out a howl - much to the amusement of his classmates who break into teeters. The old man laughs too, but softly admonishes the girl for her action.
Countless wrinkles resembling tiny rivulets run down the weather-beaten face, which every so often breaks into a wide grin to reveal a set of widely spaced, slightly yellowing teeth. His long bony fingers are curled around a wooden cane that he uses to support himself as he slowly eases himself onto the tiny seat. The faded navy blue jacket is a size too large for his 5ft 4 inches frame and gives the appearance of draping a hanger. A sky blue shirt peeping from underneath a woolen sweater worn inside the jacket gives the eye a much-needed break from the monotonous sea of navy blue.
A Voice of America Badge — given to him by a visiting journalist — is pinned on the lapel of the jacket, which is threatening to meet the hemline of the blue pair of shorts neatly cut off at the knees. Grey socks with wide bands of blue running across the top are pulled up to his knees, and a pair of unpolished black leather lace-up shoes, with deep ridges running along the seams, offers much-needed cover for his ageing feet.
Meet Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge, the world’s oldest pupil, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, and Kenya’s most famous primary school pupil. Although he has no papers to prove his age, Maruge reckons he is 84 years old.
It is about 11.30 am, break time, and the mass of excited playful pupils shrieking delightedly as they chase each other round the compound, skipping rope, playing hopscotch or simply sprawled out on the grass in the field lends an aura of liveliness to the school and its environs. The pupils have just completed their end of term examinations and are awaiting the results of their performance as they proceed home for the August holidays. Maruge waits as eagerly as everyone else.
His decision to go to school at the onset of the free primary education programme last year both shocked and amused many who thought he was out of his mind and would soon tire of the rigours involved in attaining basic education. Two terms later, he has proved them wrong.
Not only is he a straight ‘A’ student, but Maruge (fondly referred to as "guka", Gikuyu for grandfather ) has also proved to be a model student at Kapkenduiywo Primary School on Langas Road in Eldoret town. His report card this term shows a marked improvement from last term’s. He scores 95 per cent in English and number work compared to last term when he scored 80 per cent. His marks in Kiswahili have also risen from 81 to 90 per cent. Maruge is studying under what is referred to as an individualised programme. This is a special programme tailored to lay greater emphasis on subjects that are of interest to the learner.
In his case, it means he does not have to go through science and civics classes like other students. Instead, he is graded in mathematics, reading and writing skills in both English and Kiswahili and in social studies. Over the two-term period, he has been able to move on to Class Two work and has started practising a bit of Class Three arithmetic.
In his remarks on Maruge’s report form, his class teacher, Mr Moses Chemworem, describes him as an obedient, active pupil who enjoys his work and is eager to learn. Maruge’s face glows with pride when he learns of his performance this term from his teacher, but insists on seeing his report card so that he can verify the information. Chemworem is full of praise for his student, who initially had a rocky start. "Maruge had been put together with other Class One pupils in a class of 109, but we found it fit to separate him from the rest due to his age, failing sight and poor hearing, which were hindering him from following the proceedings in class," he says.
Now, Maruge is in an adjacent classroom, which he shares with six students enrolled in the special unit. He has adamantly refused to join adult literacy classes and insists that he wants to get the ABC of reading and writing like his classmates, since he missed out on it when young. As a boy, Maruge was not lucky to see the inside of a classroom as his father, an illiterate labourer, insisted that he takes care of the family’s livestock instead.
As we continue with our conversation, Maruge whispers something into his class teacher’s ear, who then nods in agreement as the old man shuffles off. "He was seeking permission to go to the toilet," the teacher explains amusedly.
His exercise books bear all the signs of a student who is keen on his work. The margins in his mathematics book are neatly drawn and the numbers arranged with impeccable precision. There are no smudges and no messy cancellations on the pages. Sentences in his English and Kiswahili workbooks are equally neatly penned out in small legible print. Maruge is taking no chances with his education. He wants to study hard and go to the university so that he can become a veterinary doctor and treat people’s cows, he says. Aside from this, he wants to improve on his writing skills to enable him write a book on the history of the Mau Mau liberation movement. Despite his advanced age, Maruge remains optimistic that God will keep him alive to realise his dreams.
The deputy head teacher, Mrs Tabitha Busolo, amusedly recalls the first time Maruge appeared at the school compound in November last year seeking admission to Class One. "I thought he was joking and asked him to go away and come back after a week if he was serious," she says.
A week later, Maruge was back, having convinced several members of the teaching staff to plead his case with the deputy head, who then told him to go back home and report to school on January 6, 2004, in full uniform. Satisfied that she had deterred him, Busolo was shocked to find Maruge in school on opening day. Not only was he the first student to arrive at the school, but he was also dressed in full uniform, complete with a schoolbag and exercise books ready to start learning.
Little has changed since then about Maruge. He is always the first student to arrive at the compound at 7. 30 am, usually half an hour earlier than the rest, but on most occasions he does not walk alone. He comes accompanied by his five sheep, which he tethers a few metres outside the school compound to graze while he busies himself in class.
Sometimes, he spends the half hour catching up on his studies or tending to his pet project, a kei-apple tree nursery, which he has started right outside the administration block. Maruge single-handedly planted the seedlings and ensures that they are watered daily. "I want these trees to be used in fencing the school," he says, pointing to the thin strands of barbed wire fence, which now embraces the school compound. He never leaves the school compound without seeking permission from his teachers or the head teacher, and always lets them know in advance in case he wants to leave town.
It is now approaching 1 pm; and on completion of a short reading comprehension exercise with his class teacher, the last item on his timetable for the day, it is time for Maruge to call it a day. Today, he will leave behind his sheep to graze for a little while longer before coming back for them later in the evening.
His home is about 10 minutes’ walk from the school, through a maze of maize plantations and narrow pathways, broken at every turn by mud-walled houses and tiny kiosks crammed with foodstuff and groceries. It is evident that the old man is well liked, judging from the number of people who stop him along the way just to greet him and find out how he is doing.
He calls out to a middle-aged woman and enquires about her family, then invites her to have a picture taken with him. She smiles shyly and declines, pleading that she has to go and change into more presentable clothes, as the ones she is wearing are too shabby. Barefoot tots with protruding bellies and runny noses run up to him when they see him approach and he stops every now and then to caress their chubby faces, calling them by their nicknames.
A path branches off from the main road is bounded by a well trimmed hedge, behind which are seven mud-walled houses standing shoulder to shoulder. The footpath leading to the houses is bordered by rows of maize plantations on either side and stretches for about 100 metres. Maruge’s house is one of the seven standing at the far end of the line and has a tiny gate leading to the main door, unlike the others. Adjacent to the house is the sheep pen where he keeps his flock and some chickens.
A widower and father of 15 children, only five of whom are still alive, Maruge lives alone. As we walk towards the house, he loudly calls out to Gitau, a neighbour, to find out about his day. He ambles towards his house and, after fiddling with the padlock for a few minutes, manages to unlock the door, offering the first glimpse into his abode. An old dusty bicycle, bought in 1944 for Sh30, leans against a wall that is already sagging under the weight of paper bags and sacks hung on old rusty nails jutting out of different parts of the wall.
An old sack filled with various types of herbs, tree barks and roots hangs at one end. These are medicinal, Maruge explains. He boils them together with honey and drinks three glasses a day to keep healthy. True enough, none of his neighbours can recall a day when the old man has ever been taken ill. He does not take alcohol, as he believes it will make him sick, but he has stuck to smoking his favourite brand of cigarette - Roaster over the years.
Another sack dangling from the wall is full of old clothes and bits of newspaper cuttings which somehow failed to find their way to the wall on which are pasted clippings of stories done on him by both the local and international media. There is only one framed picture on the mud wall – that of himself on his first day at school, dressed in full uniform.
Two worn-out tyres, lying on top of a pair of worn slippers, peep from under an unmade wooden bed, whose rumpled covers can barely be seen beneath a pile of clothes. Directly above the bed is a metallic stand nailed onto the wall, which he uses for charging his batteries. An old carton filled with more clothes stands on a wooden stool beside the bed.
Cooking utensils are strewn in one corner of the room next to an old tin container from which sprout several sprigs of onions. He prefers to keep the plant indoors, he says, away from thieving hands. Next to the container is a medium-sized yellow bucket in which clothes that he had soaked earlier in the day are stashed. A half-used sack of charcoal occupies the farthest corner of the room surrounded by a rusty water can, a charcoal stove and an old car battery.
A well fed kitten that he proudly refers to in Gikuyu as Kanyau ka muthuri (The old man’s cat) walks into the room, jumps into the pile of clothes on the bed, curls itself into a ball and goes to sleep. Maruge smiles contentedly, eases himself onto the bed and gently strokes the kitten.
He apologises for not having prepared a meal for the visitor and instead offers a cup of tea. Without waiting for an answer, he calls out loudly to Gitau again, and asks him if he could borrow his stove. Gitau, a tall, dark-skinned man in his mid 30s, soon appears at the doorway carrying a tiny green stove in one hand and a small sufuria half-filled with mukimo [mash potatoes, vegetables and maize] in the other. The next-door neighbour has saved up some of his family’s lunch for Maruge.
A few minutes later, a lively brood of four youngsters, his neighbours - aged between one and six - troops into the house and tries to outdo each other in climbing onto the old man’s lap. He clearly dotes on the children. He scoops out tiny portions of the meal into their little hands as he calls to their mother to come and meet his visitor.
Peter Gitau has been Maruge’s neighbour for the past four years. Gitau, who is almost like a grandson to the old man, helps Maruge with his homework in the evening during the one hour he sets aside for study between 9 and 10 pm. He describes him as a determined and hardworking man who usually wakes up at 3 am every morning to read his Bible and pray, after which he goes back to sleep until 5 am, when he starts off his day.
Says Gitau, "We knew that he meant business when he said he wanted to go back to school, as he is a man who keeps his word and takes everything he does seriously."
Maruge is a darling of the neighbours, especially the children, as he is always dishing out goodies and takes time to listen to their stories. The older ones have taken it upon themselves to ensure he has his meals and that his flock of sheep is well tended to when Maruge is away. Gitau often wakes up early in the morning to help the old man prepare breakfast before he leaves for school.
Midway through our conversation, Maruge fishes out a Kiswahili Bible and proceeds to read, albeit haltingly, the first three verses from the Book of Amos, Chapter 7, a sign that he is slowly acquiring one of the skills that has eluded him for decades. "I went to school so that I could read the Bible for myself and keep proper account of my money," he says. Ironically, he has little money to count right now and clings to the hope of one day being compensated for injustices committed against him and others.
Mau Mau veteran
A Mau Mau veteran, Maruge is optimistic that the British government will pay him for the atrocities committed against him by colonialists during the struggle for independence.
Maruge recalls working for a Bwana Jim, a white settler in Molo. In1952, he was arrested in a raid conducted to smoke out the Mau Mau and together with dozens was herded off to the railway station in Nairobi from where they were transported to the Maela detention camp. This marked the beginning of an eight-year nightmare characterised by torture and shipment from one camp to another, in efforts to obtain information from the captives on the operations of the movement.
Maruge declined to divulge any secrets and pretended to be dumb for the entire period. Not even inserting sharp pencils into his ears would make him budge. Determined to make him speak, his tormentors cut off a toe from his left foot, a scar he bears to this day and ordered that he gets 25 lashes. Alternating between pain and inducement, his tormentors one day brought him two naked women and urged him to choose one. Still he remained mum.
In a voice tinged with nostalgia, he stares wistfully into the distance as he recalls how one of his sons, a baby strapped onto his mother’s back, was killed as the mother fled from their captors at the height of the Mau Mau struggle.
Freedom finally came with the release of Jomo Kenyatta from Kapenguria but Maruge was not the same man, at least not in the first six months of his return. He became a recluse and spoke to no one, not even his wife. His regression was so severe that he even lost control of his bowel movements, but later sought treatment for the condition.
But all that is in the past now and Maruge is grateful to the government, which has helped him realise part of his dream. He is well versed in the politics of the day and talks freely on many topical issues. "We fought hard, and some people even lost their lives for the freedom of our land; and this should not be taken lightly," he says while expressing disappointment at the constant bickering among politicians, especially on matters of the constitution.
A booming voice struggling to be heard above the din of the loud crackling of a public address system rudely interrupts our conversation and momentarily diverts attention. The voice is announcing a free medical camp to be held over the weekend. A few minutes later, a cream-coloured Peugeot with a loudspeaker strapped onto its carrier rumbles to a stop in the compound and two middle-aged men step out. They have come to say hello to Maruge and remind him to attend the camp. They leave 10 minutes later after exchanging pleasantries and promising to pass by later.
It is fast approaching dusk and Maruge tries to find his tin lamp amid the clutter. He wants to wash the clothes he had earlier soaked, have his supper early and settle down for yet another evening of study before retiring to bed.
He is grateful for the chance he has been given to go to school. One day he will go to America where he will be able to learn more English, he says. But for now, there are two pressing issues that he wants to be addressed urgently. One is that Roads Minister Raila Odinga tarmacs the road leading to his school and secondly, that Education Minister George Saitoti should come to the school and help put up more classrooms and a decent fence.Mzee Maruge goes to school with some of his class mates. Outside his hut in Langas with his grandchildren. In his classroom with ‘friends’. Mzee Maruge chats with one of his teachers. Mzee Maruge feeds his only cow after returning from school.
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