Issues News Personalities

A tribute to Kimani Maruge

When Kimani Maruge burst into the public limelight, I thought it was a bad joke, a publicity stunt gone too far. Seriously, how could a man aged over 80 enrol in Standard One? Nevertheless, I followed his ‘educational career’ with detached interest.
Two years down the line the man was still at it. So the guy was serious after all? I was now asking myself. Slowly he was winning me over. And yes he had become a media superstar. Boy, did the media love Maruge? And he rarely disappointed. He always came up with soundbites, that TV people ran over and over again.
My most enduring image was of the old man with a blue (I am colour blind) blazer, with matching knee-length shorts. His socks were always pulled to the base of his knees. And below them was a pair canvas shoes popularly known as Bata Bullets.
Thus dressed, and with his ubiquitous cane Maruge would drag one heavy foot after the other on his way to school.
It did not take long before the folks at Guinness Book of Records took notice, and he promptly entered their books for the dogged way he sought to get educated. He became the world’s oldest pupil.
This man kept telling everyone who cared to listen that he went to school so that he would be able to read the Bible, and soon he was reading his favourite book.
It was worthy noting here that Maruge despite his advanced age wanted to learn how to read. His example put to shame many people who soon after they are through with formal schooling throw away their books. You’ve probably heard of infamous academic bonfires, where secondary school leavers pile all their books and set fire to them.
In their foolish thinking that is the end of them and reading. These are people who have been socialised to think that reading is a form of torture, that is only tolerated for the sake of sitting exams.
During the just concluded Storymoja Hay Festival I attended a session where Muthoni Garland, the managing director of Storymoja, told the story of a young woman who came looking for a job in her firm.
When Muthoni asked the young woman the last title she read a book, the young woman shamelessly told her that she no longer reads and she had now finished schooling! Muthoni says she was scandalised and rightly so. Here is a person who hopes to be employed in a publishing firm, and who does not read.
Well, that girl is in good company. There are quite a number of people who work in our publishing houses, who do not read. Don’t ask me how I know.
Back to Maruge. As a media star, his star never faded. He continued to attract media attention in almost everything he did. Such was his star power that the Kenya Publishers Association (KPA) invited him as a guest during the 2005 edition of the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature awards at the Nairobi International Book Fair. Marugi Photo
In his speech Maruge, then in Standard Five, counselled on the need to cultivate a healthy reading culture. He also took the opportunity to urge the youth against engaging in casual sex.
After that Maruge retreated to his quiet lifestyle in Kenya’s Rift Valley, where he continued with his studies. The next time I heard major news on him was after the post-election violence, where he was talking to the media from an Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDP) camp.
He had been ejected from his home for belonging to the ‘wrong tribe’.
And that is how he landed in a home for the aged, in Nairobi, from where he continued with his education. All this time, he pledged to pursue his education up to university level.
By now, Maruge was looking frail, and he spoke with difficulties, but still his star power was unmistakable. Everything he did attracted media attention.
This included his baptism ceremony at a Nairobi church. Meanwhile Hollywood was planning to shoot a major movie based on his life. Titled the First Grader, the movie unfortunately, could not be shot in Kenya as the relevant authorities levied exorbitant taxes on the moviemakers. South Africa gave them tax incentives they sought and that for the umpteenth time the South African country got to shoot a movie originally destined for Kenya.
I must mention here that I was involved, in a small way in scouting for a suitable person to play the part of Maruge, but that is a story for another day.
Maruge died on August 14, at the Chesire Home for the aged in Kariobangi North, where he was staying, from complications of stomach cancer. He was aged 89.
Fare thee well Maruge. You fought the good fight. I propose a literary award in honor of the old man. Any takers?

Issues News

A community library for village folks

About two months ago I had the rare honour of visiting a community library in a dusty, remote village called Ndeiya. I would love to share my thoughts on what I saw there:

The Cardinal Otunga Library is as modern as modern libraries go. Its catalogue includes much-sought after books like the two biographies on American President Barack Obama. Simply put, the library is a gem for a book lover or anyone in search of general knowledge.
Indeed the library, with a sitting capacity of 100 people, has more than 5,000 books, and more are still to come. Well, The Cardinal Otunga Library is not in Nairobi or any other major town for that matter. It is right in the heart of Ndeiya, the very exemplification of a rural area.
Prior to the construction of the road that runs from Thogoto in Kikuyu to Mutarakwa in Limuru – though incomplete – Ndeiya was pretty much a forgotten place. Ndeyia, which is part of the larger Kiambu, and which cuts across two constituencies – Kikuyu and Limuru – had the dubious distinction of being backward, and people from that area were subjected to much ridicule.
On a good day, the library, which opens its doors at 11 am to 5.30 pm, five days in a week, is almost always full of people willing to quench their thirst of information.
The centre, which is housed at the Holy Cross Catholic Church in Thigio, is run by the Daughters of Charity. Sister Liz Smith, who is the centre’s administrator told Maisha Yetu that the center was established with the interests of area residents in mind.
“We wanted something that would take care of the youth, in the area, who are mostly idle and unemployed,” explains Sister Liz adding that the centre also has a hall which hosts recreational games like pool and table tennis.
Money for constructing the hall was donated from a family in Ireland. “After much consultation on how best the hall would be put to use, it was decided that a library would come in handy,” adds Sister Liz.
Over the years, schools in the area have generally performed badly, partly due to lack of adequate learning materials like books. And when Mrs Ann Mburu, a former teacher, was appointed the librarian, the first thing she did was to order for school textbooks, both for primary and secondary schools.
And this has borne fruits. Students from nearby schools drop into the library during weekends and school holidays to do their studies using the textbooks available. A former student from the nearby Thigio Boys Secondary School, who scored an A- in his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Examinations (KCSE) offered to tutor other students for free.
“The boy told us that his good performance in KCSE was a result of using facilities at the library,” explains Mrs Mburu. “He therefore wanted to give something back to society.”
At the time we got into the library, there were only three people, including a young girl browsing through the children’s section. As the interview progressed more people started dropping in. Most of them were in school uniform.
Sister Catherine Madigan, who is in charge of the library says that most of the books were donated from the US. “Three schools from Chicago were being closed and they donated all their books to us. We update books according to the demand,” says Sister Catherine.
The library charges a modest membership fee of Sh250 per year for adults and Sh100 for children. Members can borrow a maximum of two books, which they return after two weeks. Membership currently stands at 150.
Non-members are welcome to come and read from the library. “Membership is open to everyone irrespective of their denomination,” adds Sister Catherine.
Since the library was opened in January 2007, there has been some progress especially among neighbouring schools. “Some of the feedback we have been getting from teachers and parents is that pupils are now able to write better compositions in school,” says Mrs Mburu.
Mr David Kimani, who is in the management committee of schools in the area is full of praises for the Daughters of Charity for introducing the library in the area. “Of all the assistance that has been given to people in this area, this is the best gift so far,” he says. “Other forms of assistance create a sense of dependency among the people, but with book, our young people are going to open up their thinking, which will in effect bring about innovation and creativity.”
UPDATE: I am reliably informed that Mrs Anne Mburu no longer works at the library, otherwise everything about the library stands, including what she told me