The World’s Oldest Kindergartener

For most of the 1950s, the area now known as Kenya was at war. The region was a British colony from the late 1800s until 1963, and toward the end of that period, many indigenous people took up arms in an effort to kick the British out. The most notable uprising was the Mau Mau Rebellion from 1952 to 1960, which resulted in a British victory and the deaths of tens of thousands of Kenyans; at least 12,000 rebels (and likely many, many more) lost their lives, as did around 3,000 Kenyans who served as peacekeepers on behalf of the British.

Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge was one of the men who went to war with the British — and one who survived. And he’d go on to live a long life; nearly fifty years after the war ended, he was still living in Kenya (now an independent republic), not too far from his children and grandchildren. However, Maruge had never learned to read. That wasn’t uncommon — at that point (the early 2000s), Kenya’s adult literacy rate was only around 75-80%, and falling.

Kenya’s government recognized that illiteracy was a problem, and wanted to reduce the issue for future generations. So in 2003, the nation announced that all children would be entitled to a free primary school education. The entitlement proved popular among parents of young children — but it also appealed to Maruge, then in his early 80s. The law providing that free education didn’t specify an age limit for those who chose to enroll, and Maruge wanted to better himself. So in 2005 — at age 84 — became a kindergartener (or the Kenyan equivalent), joining the same class that two of his grandchildren were in.

At first, Maruge’s efforts were met with “fierce opposition from officials and parents, who did not want a precious educational place to be given to an old man,” according to the Guardian. But ultimately, the school allowed him to matriculate, as seen in this photo. And once there, he thrived, both as a student and a role model for his fellow kindergartners. Maruge’s ambitions were humble; per the BBC, “he wanted to learn to read the Bible and to count,” and he took his studies seriously. By all accounts, he did well — earning top grades in English, math, and Swahili — and per the BBC’s Pidgin story about him, he even was named head boy.

And the example Maruge set went beyond his own classroom. Guinness World Records adjudicated him as the world’s oldest kindergartner, helping create a buzz around his effort. A documentary about Maruge, titled The First Grader, debuted in 2011. And of course, there were numerous press reports throughout Kenya and beyond about his academic achievement. While it was not Maruge’s intent, he created awareness around the educational opportunities in Kenya for older adults — and started a bit of a trend. Today, while rare, it’s not unheard of for octogenarians to restart their educations even in the lowest of grades. For example, in 2015, a 90-year-old grandmother named Priscilla Sitienei enrolled in the equivalent of middle school; she, per the BBC, wanted “to be able to read the Bible [and] to inspire children to get an education.”

Maruge never graduated from his school, sadly; illness came for him first. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer in August of 2009 and passed away shortly thereafter at the age of 89.

Bonus fact: Had Maruge survived to see his whole education through, and had he ultimately graduated from college, he’d have been roughly 106 years old while donning the cap and gown. That seems impossible, and it may be — but not by much. In 2010, a 99-year-old named Akasease Kofi Boakye Yiadom graduated from Presbyterian University College in Ghana with a business degree, according to CNN. He’s not recognized by Guinness as the world’s oldest graduate (for reasons unclear), but he wasn’t doing it for the recognition. As he told CNN, “Education has no end. As far as your brain can work alright, your eyes can see alright, and your ears can hear alright, if you go to school you can learn.”

From the Archives: The Oldest Ph.D.: She earned it at the relatively young age of 102.