The oldest infant on Earth

12th November 2004 at 00:00
KENYA. When the new Kenyan government of President Mwai Kibaki declared free primary schooling for all a year ago, there was a huge surge in enrolment.

Among the millions of small children queuing up was an old man with a grey beard, leaning on his cane. The children thought he must be someone's grandfather. But Kimani Nganga Maruge, 84, was there to claim his right to education. He made history by becoming the oldest person in Kenya to start primary school in the country's history and he is now in The Guinness Book of Records as the oldest primary pupil on the planet.

Mr Maruge never went to school as a child because he had to take care of the family's livestock.

Nearly 80 years years later he turned up at Kapkenduiywa primary school in Eldoret, western Kenya, in his home-made uniform of grey knee socks, blue shirt and blue trousers cut off at the knee to make them into shorts.

Headmistress, Jane Obinchu did not take him seriously at first, but he was adamant that he would finally learn English, Swahili and maths, so she gave him a chance. With failing hearing he was given a front-row seat and the other children laughed at the sight of him huddled next to them, reciting the alphabet and times tables.

But as time wore on they grew fond of him, addressing him as "Mzee", the Swahili word used to address one's elders. Usually first to arrive, Mr Maruge is passionate about learning and waves his cane at naughty children, helping teachers to discipline them. He passed all his first-year exams and is enjoying his second year. He says learning to read will help him in church. "I want to know whether the priest is following the Bible correctly," he said.

Maths will help him to count the compensation money he hopes the British government will pay over a claim that he was tortured while fighting with the Mau Mau for Kenya's independence half a century ago.

His teacher, Moses Chemworem, says Mr Maruge is like a living history book.

"Both the pupils and teachers learn so much from him." But Mr Maruge is thinking about the future, not the past. His next goal is secondary school - and by the time he reaches 100 he wants to become a vet.

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