If one-time world’s oldest pupil, Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge were to rise from the dead now, he would most probably be stunned how fast his global fame came tumbling down barely a decade after his death.
At the time of his death at 90, Maruge who had risen to become the most celebrated octogenarian amongst his generation was a man of ‘means, authority and power’ as he courted attention of influential local and international organizations and personalities.
Maruge became a global sensation in his sunset days when he enrolled at Kapkenduiywo Primary School in Eldoret, and sought admission in Class one following introduction of Free Primary Education by the Narc Government in 2003.
His well-documented life as a pupil saw him land a slot in the revered Guinness Book as the oldest pupil in the world.
The then 84 year old pupil was further thrust into international glare of publicity after he was immortalized in a Hollywood film The First Grader where Kenyan TV journalist-turned-actor, Oliver Litondo played Maruge in the film.
In his heydays, Maruge also enjoyed a whirlwind of adventure that saw him honoured with paid for accommodations and meetings in five star hotels and flights to various local and international destinations.
Among the dignitaries he met on several occasions were wife to former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Mrs. Nane Annan.
But exactly ten years since his demise, fortunes of the oldest pupil’s family have dwindled sharply. It has been a typical case study of rising from obscurity to instantaneous global fame then fading rapidly into oblivion.
At Arash Village within Subukia Sub-County, the homestead of the man who in September 2005 boarded a plane for the first time and flew to New York to address the United Nations Millennium Development Summit on the importance of free primary education, sticks out like a sore thumb in the neighbourhood of imposing homes. It looks eerily abandoned and dilapidated.
The pomposity associated with politicians and high flying personalities as they snaked their way in the sleepy village in convoys to pay homage to the oldest pupil is now conspicuously lacking.
Television cameras have stopped rolling and prominent individuals no longer arrive in fuel guzzling sports utility vehicles.
At a secluded western corner of his homestead lies his tomb in a derelict state while walls to his former abode are leaning precariously with the leaking roof having seen its better days.
An interview with his 62 year old daughter, Regina Wairimu Maruge paints a grim picture of unfulfilled promises, loneliness, desolation and paucity. An acute sense of betrayal is palpable as she pours out her heart.
It is a sharply contrasting state of affairs when the much sought after celebrity in Maruge swilled and seamlessly hobnobbed with top state officials and respected corporate brands.
“We were abandoned, just like that. Our father’s story is an example of accounts of legends who were adored at their prime but now whose families live in squalor after their fall or death,” noted Wairimu.
“Today, our family can hardly afford basics. If Kenya chooses to forget Maruge, it will have forgotten not only one of its most illustrious sons but also an important part of its history,” says Wairimu, speaking from her dilapidated shack at the homestead where she now lives alone.
She continues with a tinge of bitterness “Our father was also a Mau Mau fighter. Remembrance is a very important thing. Any generation that ignores its history and forgets its heroes and heroines is doomed to fail. There is a tradition that is emerging in Kenya that we tend to forget the people who achieved feats or stood against oppression.
“We also have living heroes who we tend to forget except when it suits us to remember them once in a while. But God has given us the strength and the grace to go through these tough moments,” says Wairimu.
After a lengthy lull, the late Maruge’s name briefly reclaimed its international acclaim on January 13th 2015 when Google honoured him with a customized doodle depicting his passion for education in his old age.
At the time of his death, the man who had fascinated Kenyans with every aspect of his life had outlived 12 of his 15 children. He is survived by two daughters and a son.
Wairimu is chagrined that Kenyans were sometimes inclined to pay no attention to people who have sacrificed for this country and ignore the plight of their families most of which were wallowing in poverty
“All of us are enjoying the freedom Mau Mau fighters and icons such as Jomo Kenyatta, Achieng Oneko and Paul Ngei and among others fought for. We should show that we appreciate the sacrifices of the likes of Bishop Alex Muge, Jean Marie Seroney, Martin Shikuku and George Anyona.
“Our heroines such as Wangari Maathai, Grace Onyango, Phoebe Asiyo and Jael Mbogo mean nothing to the new Kenyan nation. They have been comfortably forgotten. It is easy for a villain to be a hero and a hero to be cast as a villain. We should shun those who want us to forget our history,” she asserts
She notes that in death, Maruge had been treated unfairly even after his easily recognizable wrinkled image stooping over a wooden desk, perched in the middle of children young enough to be his great, great-grandchildren became a symbol of the government’s free education initiative.
“Those who loved Maruge should honour him in death by at least putting up a mausoleum at his resting place in his memory. He touched many hearts across the world. He also gave many Kenyans the courage to seek knowledge and ability to read and write. If a mausoleum was built in the honour of our father, we would make a little income from visitors coming to see his resting place and be able to take care of it,” Wairimu appealed.
“It is worth doing something in Maruge’s memory as he was the country’s goodwill ambassador at international forums where he highlighted the plight of the schools which lacked permanent structures, water and electricity,” suggests Wairimu.
Litondo observes that Maruge’s unique resilience saw him walk four kilometers daily from his makeshift home after he was displaced in post-election skirmishes further transformed him into a greater inspiration that the pupils looked up to.
“Maruge was a motivator and there is no doubt his story is worth emulating. When people hear the story, they are inspired. He drew a lot of people into schools in Kenya,” he noted.
“He continues to inspire Kenyans who had given up seeking what they want every day, age notwithstanding. Maruge rekindled ambition in people who did not think they still had it,” says Litondo.
Wairimu states that though The First Grader was well received, coming second in the People’s Choice category at 2014’s Toronto International Film Festival, Maruge’s family has never received a penny from its producers.
“The most unfortunate thing has been that some people now think because our father was the main character featured in the film, we are all now rich,” she said. “That is, sadly, not the case. We are just struggling to do the little we can.”
The First Grader a feature-length production was directed by former head of BBC Films David Thompson.
With its themes of triumph over adversity, of the force and importance of education, and of how the value of people doesn’t diminish in old age, The First Grader also touches on an airbrushed part of history – the colonial brutality in Kenya which Maruge also tasted.
At the height of 2007-2008 post-election violence, Maruge was displaced from Eldoret highlighting the senseless mayhem. Many innocent Kenyans had their lives shattered, never to be the same again.
After the displacement, he was plagued by ill health that would see him in and out of hospital from which he never really recovered. He told the world he wanted to read the Bible for himself and carry out simple arithmetic.
“People have been telling me things in the Bible, which I do not know if they are true,” Maruge said in 2004. “I want to read the Holy Book for myself and find out.”
The Mau Mau veteran also said he had been cheated for a long time about his earnings and he wanted to calculate his money.
By the time he passed away, Maruge had fulfilled his lifelong dream of being able to read the Bible. His will demonstrated a rare spirit of resilience and perseverance.
In 2008, Maruge was forced to withdraw from the school and relocate to Nairobi in a retirement home.
After settling down at the home, he enrolled again into school, this time joining Class Six at Marura Primary School in Kariobangi.
As the challenges of age weighed down on him, Maruge persisted with his determination to attain education. For him, the sky was the limit, and the idea of pursuing a university education was not too far-fetched.
But as fate would have it, Maruge’s failing health confined him to a wheelchair then he lost life’s battle to stomach cancer. At the time of his death, Maruge was in Class Seven.
By Anne Mwale/ Samuel Ndaire