When Mzee Kimani Ng'ang'a Maruge burst into the public limelight after enrolling for primary school education at the age of 84 in 2004, many dismissed it as a bad joke, a public stunt driven too far. But when this great-grandfather finally departed to his grave on August 14, 2009 of stomach cancer at the Cheshire Home for the Aged in Kariobangi North, Nairobi, he not only left a sweeping legacy that defied the odds in education and proved to many that it’s never too late to salvage a dream, but had his name firmly inscribed in the coveted Guinness World Record for being the oldest person to start primary school.
Maruge, who believed he was born in 1920, attended Kapkenduiywo Primary School in Eldoret, Kenya. His trials to go to school before had proved fruitless. His renewed interest in education, he said, was as a result of the government’s decision to provide free primary education.
While in school, Maruge commanded the respect of his classmates (grandchildren) and teachers and abode by the school rules and regulations. His socks were always pulled to the base of his knees, his hair was always well kempt and he reported to school early and frequent enough. With such discipline, he was made a prefect in the school.
The 2007-2008 post-election violence that hit Kenya did not spare the old man. His property was stolen and his house in the Rift Valley was burnt down in the violence and he found himself living at an agricultural showground housing 14,000 displaced people, before he was later moved to the home for the aged. But even with such difficult situations, he continued with his hard work and swore to pursue university education.
A veteran of Kenya's 1950s Mau Mau independence movement, Mr. Maruge said he was inspired to start learning when he suspected a preacher was misinterpreting the Bible. 'Mzee' Maruge also said he wanted to learn to count the money he was expecting to receive in compensation from the authorities for fighting against the British during the Mau Mau uprising.
In September 2005, Maruge boarded a plane for the first time in his life, in a UN-sponsored trip to New York, simply the highlight of his life. Maruge addressed the United Nations Millennium Development Summit on the importance of free primary education and called on world leaders at the summit to make education for the poor a priority.
On Sunday May 24, 2009 the father-of-five was baptised at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Kariobangi and took a Christian name, Stephen. Maruge died on August 14 aged 90, at the Chesire Home for the aged in Kariobangi North, where he was staying, from complications of stomach cancer. He was aged 89 and was buried in his farm in Subukia, Rift Valley Province, Kenya.
In his everlasting quest for more knowledge, Mzee Maruge left many of us in Africa in urgent need to rethink education and not take it for granted.
It is his fight for a right to go to school that inspired a film, The First Grader, directed by English actor and television and film director Justin Chadwick to be shot in his owner. The First Grader is a true story of an 84 year-old Kenyan villager and ex Mau Mau freedom fighter who fights for his right to go to school for the first time to get the education he could never afford.
It stars among others, English screen actress Naomie Harris, "Hotel Rwanda" and " Invictus actor Tony Kgoroge and former news editor and international celebrity film actor Oliver Litondo.
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