The Google doodle for Kenya today shows a white-haired man at a table in a primary school, earnestly writing a classroom exercise. The kids behind him grin as if to say, “He is kind of old to be a first-grader.”
Well, yes, he is! In 2004, Kimani Maruge went to school for the first time at age 84. Monday marks the 11th anniversary of his first day at school. The Guinness Book of Records says he’s the oldest person to enroll in primary school. And who am I to argue?
A quick Internet search revealed that Maruge was the subject of both a documentary film and a feature film, The First Grader. A lifelong farmer, he attended school for three or four years, then was displaced from his village by unrest in the country. He found another school to enroll in and died of cancer at age 89 in 2009.
I also found someone who met Maruge in 2005 when he traveled around New York in a big yellow school bus, promoting education at the U.N. Millennium Development Summit. David Archer, at the nonprofit ActionAid, shared some memories.
What made Maruge enroll in school at age 84?
He couldn’t afford to go to school before that because the government charged fees. He was part of the Kenyan fight for independence, fighting against British colonial rule. He assumed he would be able to go to school once Kenya got independence [in 1963]. But the government continued to charge fees until 2003. Then they abolished the fees. So the very next year, he went to school for the first time.
He wasn’t the only one to benefit from the abolition of fees.
Two million Kenyan children of school age managed to get to school for the first time.
Was he illiterate before he went to school?
Genuinely. He had not had access to education previously and was genuinely keen on learning. At first, the school in his village tried to turn him away, but in the end the head teacher agreed he could stay.
Was he intimidated by going to school for the first time?
I think he was a bit bashful. It takes quite a bit of guts to get dressed up in a school uniform at 84. But he was absolutely passionate that this is why he had fought for the freedom of his country.
Did he love school?
It was an incredible joy to him, and he took it seriously. He sat there and learned as much as he could. It’s not easy learning to read and write when you’re that age. One of the biggest challenges is the manual dexterity of learning to hold a pen in your hand and form letters. Your hand, if molded over decades of manual labor, is not used to making fine movements of writing with a pen. He was very satisfied when he got to the point when he could write his name.
Kenya wasn’t the only country that charged fees for primary school, right?
At the time, children in some 92 countries had to pay to go to primary school. It had been a policy of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the 1970s and 1980s to say to governments in poorer countries, “you can’t afford to educate children unless you share the costs with the parents.” It was a disastrous policy. A series of national campaigns led to the abolition of those fees. That’s the main reason today that, compared to 2000, there are 50 million more children in primary school [around the world]. And Maruge was a powerful advocate for education.
Are there efforts to help other adults go to school for the first time?
It’s a global scandal that so many adults are unable to read and write: Something like 750 million adults are illiterate, according to official statistics. It’s probably double that if you count anyone who can’t meaningfully read and write to function in their society.
For adults who miss out on school, there are very few opportunities to get that second chance. And school is not really designed for adults. There should be special provisions for adult literacy, with as its starting point, respect for what they’ve gained throughout their lives. They can’t be treated as stupid; the only thing they don’t know is how to read and write. It’s shocking that people don’t invest in that.
Do you recall anything Maruge said to you when you met him in New York?
He said, “For me, education is the key to liberty.” He caught that connection between fighting for Kenyan independence and being deprived of that real sense of access to school.
Did you know there was going to be a Google doodle today in his honor?
I had no idea. I was delighted — very appropriate, very touching, a lovely thing to have done. It’s one of those nice human touch stories we don’t get enough of. And there’s a real message there. It’s interesting [that the doodle appears now], and in 2014 we get the first Nobel Peace Prize given to education, to Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi, who are putting education right at the center of not only development but of peace.