First Grader reveals wisdom of oldest schoolboy

The Times of London
Eldoret, Kenya

In Kenya an 84-year-old pupil who went back to primary school inspired a new film.

Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge at school (AFP/Getty)

“Maruge was a great man,” says 16-year-old Douglas Wekesa, speaking of a former schoolmate. “He taught us many things about life, about discipline, about hard work. He also taught us about how he fought the Europeans, how his wife was killed and how he was tortured. It was strange at first because he was older, but he became one of us.”

In fact, Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge was nearly ten times older than his classmates in Primary 1 when he first appeared outside Kapkenduiywo School in January 2004 wearing a shabby home-made uniform and knee-high socks, clutching a bag of books and his walking stick.

The 84-year old had come after the Kenyan Government announced that it would provide free primary education “for all”. The initiative was aimed at children but Maruge, a peasant farmer who had never been to school, thought all should mean all, no matter what age.

The first time he came, he was turned away. The second time he met the headmistress Jane Obinchu, who told him: “Here we teach small children who put on uniforms and when they make mistakes we pinch them, but you are too old — we can’t do that to you.”

The third time he came, in his own approximation of a uniform, Obinchu was persuaded by his persistence. “Some thought it was wrong for an old man to be in a classroom with young children,” says Obinchu, 54. “One of the teachers informed the press, hoping that I would be sacked.” Instead, the news of the world’s oldest primary school pupil spread. Now the story of Maruge, who died of stomach cancer at a hospice in Nairobi in August 2009, is the inspiration for a new film, The First Grader, by the Salford-born director Justin Chadwick.

Only one of the three rows of single-storey classroom blocks that make up Kapkenduiywo Primary School is brick. The others are rough, split-timber with rusting roofs, no electricity and windows without glass. More than 50 children squeeze into each classroom. Maruge’s classmates remember morning breaks sitting at his feet beneath a shady tree, while he would tell them stories from his past.

“He was a good storyteller,” says the 15-year-old Irene Wairimu. “He would talk about the struggle for independence and it would be from inside the stories because he was there.”

At a school without a proper library, Maruge was a kind of history book. His past is Kenya’s. Like many other Kikuyu peasants, forced off their property by British colonisers, Maruge joined the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s. It was a violent insurgency brutally suppressed and, although it happened half a century ago, it is only now that the truth is gradually coming out. In April this year four Mau Mau veterans went to the High Court seeking compensation for torture and abuse at the hands of the British colonial administration. The court case led to the discovery of hundreds of archive documents that cast an uncomfortable light into a dark corner of British history.

Maruge’s wife was murdered and only five of his 15 children survived the years of hardship during the rebellion. He was arrested, tortured and interned in a succession of British detention camps. He had a toe chopped off and the repeated beatings left him hard of hearing and needing a stick to walk.

Had he lived, Maruge would be taking his final primary school exams this summer. His teachers remember him as a model student. “You should have seen him seated in class!” says Obinchu. “He never felt that these were children and he could not learn from them.” His teachers have little doubt that he would have graduated with flying colours.

In late 2007, however, Maruge’s peace was shattered when tribal violence tore through the country after a disputed election. Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent President claimed victory, triggering attacks on fellow Kikuyus by Kalenjin and Luo supporters of his opponent, Raila Odinga. A church packed with women and children was burnt down, tribal death squads were deployed, police brutality was widespread. By the time international pressure brought Kibaki and Odinga together in a fractious coalition government 1,200 were dead and another 300,000 had been forced from their homes.

The worst of the violence was in the Rift Valley, with the town of Eldoret, where Maruge had made his home, at its centre. Within hours of Kibaki’s swearing-in, gangs of Kalenjin youth armed with machetes began hunting down Kikuyus. Maruge was among 14,000 who took shelter at the town’s agricultural showground as the violence raged around them. Yet even then he continued with his studies.

“In the peak of the clashes the school was supposed to be burnt down because this was Maruge’s school and he is Kikuyu,” Obinchu says. “But our Kalenjin watchman told the gang of youths from his tribe who came, ‘Our children also come here, it is not just for Maruge’, so they took the desks for firewood and left the school standing.”

Soon afterwards the Red Cross decided that Maruge was vulnerable living alone in Eldoret and had him transferred to an home for elderly people in Nairobi. Obinchu believes now that it was the wrong decision. “He was not [an] invalid, he was strong and still learning, but there he was surrounded by helpless people and it took its toll on him,” she says. “What I believe, very strongly, is that if he had stayed he would still be alive now.”

It was at the hospice that Chadwick met Maruge. For a director best known for historical dramas such as The Other Boleyn Girl and Bleak House, being able to meet his central character was a rare privilege and an implicit challenge as it became clear that Maruge would not live to see the film of his life.

“There was a massive responsibility to make sure I caught the essence of him,” Chadwick says. “Over the weeks that I’d go and see him he was getting sicker. He’d be holding on to my hand, telling me about what happened, with this look in his eye. I couldn’t shy away from telling the [Mau Mau] side of the story. And that made it very difficult, after he died, to shoot those scenes. They were the toughest that I’ve ever had to shoot.” In one harrowing scene, Maruge’s wife and two children are shot dead by soldiers. In another, he suffers terrible torture.

Chadwick admits that he has not stuck rigidly to the facts of Maruge’s life. In the film he is desperate to learn English so he can read a mysterious letter relating to his past, but in reality it was to read the Bible, and the film does not end with his death from cancer. Nevertheless it is a rare attempt to present an uplifting picture of Africa. “It’s just one man’s life and journey,” Chadwick says. “I hope it shows a side of Africa that hasn’t been seen before, that feels honest and true.”