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Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Des Van Rooyen. Picture Credit: Gallo Images
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The world's oldest pupil says liberty is learning

By unknown | Nov 16, 2006 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

Andrew Cawthorne

Andrew Cawthorne

ELDORET, Kenya - With his stubbly grey beard and walking stick, 86-year-old Kimani Maruge looks a little out of place among the rows of children sitting at 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 said at the crowded school in a poor neighbourhood outside Eldoret in Kenya's western farm lands.

The former 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.

Maruge said he was inspired after listening to a church preacher and suspecting that he was misinterpreting the Bible.

"I wanted to go to school to be able to read the Bible for myself," he said, tucking his long legs under a tiny, shared wooden 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 said with a big grin.

When he first turned up at the school in regulation knee-length socks, short pants and navy blue jersey, Maruge was greeted with laughter and teaching staff tried to direct him to adult education classes.

There is no legal age-limit for primary school entrance in Kenya and when he returned again and again, the school realised he would not be deterred.

"Inside me, when I saw him there, I felt he was serious," said headmistress Jane Obinchu.

"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 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.

"He tells us about the Mau Mau and about the time when white kids used to go to school under a roof while African kids sat under trees," said Ireen Wairimu, 11.

Hobbling on a foot he said was disfigured when he was tortured by the British 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 said.

"I want to break the barriers between old and young."

Known in his neighbourhood as "Mzee", a Swahili term of respect for an elder, Maruge is happy to show off his new knowledge, reading slowly and clearly from the Bible.

Though 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 UN in New York and 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," said 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 said, holding his books close to his chest. "Liberty is learning, you know." - Reuters


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