Primary school pupil, aged 85, wins fight to keep headteacher

Meera Selva
Wednesday 12 January 2005 01:00

An 85-year-old pupil at a Kenyan primary school, acclaimed as a national hero, has saved the job of his headteacher.

An 85-year-old pupil at a Kenyan primary school, acclaimed as a national hero, has saved the job of his headteacher.

Kimani Nganga Maruge made newspaper headlines last year by becoming the country's oldest student after the new government promised free primary education for all. Reporters flocked to cover the Mau Mau veteran's lessons and Mr Maruge's zest for learning was held up as an example for younger classmates. Now he is back in the news again after threatening to quit Kapkenduiyo school if the headteacher, Jane Obinchu, was transferred to another school.

The parents' association joined a march to the local newspaper offices and the embarrassed authorities announced yesterday that Ms Obinchu could stay.

The publicity has given Kenya's oldest pupil another opportunity to extol the benefits of lifelong learning. "I wanted her [Ms Obinchu] to stay because she has been so good to me since I joined the school," Mr Maruge said. "She gives me tea when I have not taken breakfast, and also gives me permission to tend my sheep."

In his neatly ironed blue shorts and blazer, Mr Maruge turned up at the school gates in this western Kenyan village last January, to enrol for the new school year. Adults who missed on basic schooling are supposed to attend adult education classes, but Ms Obinchu decided to bend the rules and enrol him.

Since then, Kenyans have become fascinated by every aspect of the man who has outlived 11 of his 15 children. After a 5am start to feed his goats and poultry, he packs up his satchel and walks down a dirt track to school for lessons in English, Kiswahili, maths and religious education.

"I never got a chance to go to school when the British ruled Kenya, so when President [Mwai] Kibaki said primary school should be free, I decided to go back to school and learn to read the Bible by myself," he said, sitting on a chair several sizes too small for him. "They say it is never too old to learn, and I wanted to see if that is true."

Mr Maruge may sit cross-legged among his fellow pupils at the Kapkenduiyo primary school and listen to the same lessons but in reality he wields far more influence than the average primary school pupil or, indeed, senior educationists.

Mr Maruge, who lost a toe while imprisoned by the British colonial government during the Mau Mau insurrection 50 years ago, has managed to persuade hundreds of well-wishers to donate money to the school. Much to the annoyance of the local education authorities, who wanted to place him at an adult education centre instead of a primary, he has also become a popular spokesman on schools, colonialism and the problems of old age.

To Ms Obinchu, he is an asset. "At playtimes, he tells stories of his time with the Mau Mau, and of his heroics against the British," she said.

"The children listen to him much more than they listen to our history teacher. He brings the past alive for them."

Mr Maruge, who has now been made a prefect, added: "I want to speak all the languages: Kiswahili, English and Kikuyu, and I want to learn to add up properly. If the British decide to send compensation cheques to the Mau Mau, I want to know how much I will get."

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