First Grader, Great Grandfather wrote:KAPKENDUIYWA (Kenya): Kimani Nganga Maruge is living proof that an old man, even one who leans heavily on a cane and cannot see or hear too well, can learn new tricks.
By his own reckoning, Maruge is 84. He is a widower who fathered 15 children, 5 of whom survived. He is a great-grandfather who never spent a day in school. His own father had insisted that he look after the family's herd of livestock.
But all that changed when the Kenyan government declared a year ago that primary school education would be free through grade 8. Millions of new pupils showed up at neighborhood campuses, swelling enrollment from 5.9 million students to 7.3 million virtually overnight. Maruge was among those in line.
On the first day of school, he put on some gray knee socks and blue trousers that he had cut off above the knee to resemble the short pants worn by schoolchildren. He limped his way from his mud hut to the office of the headmistress, Jane Obinchu. She thought Maruge was joking when he said he was there to enroll in the first grade. But Maruge was insistent, and Obinchu decided to give him a chance — a spot right up front where he could hear her.
The other students, most of them 78 years younger than Maruge, were amused at first by the old man's presence. But over time they grew used to having a "Mzee," the Swahili honorific given to elders, as a classmate.
After all, Maruge practiced writing the ABCs just as they did. He worked on basic math problems right alongside them. Slowly, the entire class, Maruge included, began to learn to read.
Kenyan officials were stunned that Maruge and others well beyond school age had sought to take advantage of free primary education. "We never knew that such people would come," said S. K. Karaba, senior deputy director in the Department of Education.
At Kapkenduiywa Primary School, which Maruge attends, the enrollment more than doubled to 865 students. Including Maruge, 109 of them were in first-grade.
Maruge, not the least bit embarrassed to be in the same school with two of his grandchildren, dismisses his critics with a wave of his cane. "Let them who want to make fun of me do it," he said. "I will continue to learn."