Kimani Nganga sat in a classroom for the first time when he was 84. Four years later, the world’s oldest person to date to start school is stranded in one of Kenya’s camps for the displaced, with no classes to go to.
Surrounded by about 300 other people displaced by post-election violence in the Langas camp near Eldoret, Nganga lives in a large tent packed with mattresses, white metal basins teeming with ants and bundles of clothes.
Stashed away in a safe corner are the most precious items he still owns: his school books and an album with photographs of his September 2005 visit to New York, where he took part in a United Nations campaign promoting access to education.
He then entered the Guinness World Records book as the world’s oldest person to start school.
“It’s the first time I’m displaced in my life,” says the old man. “The Luos came together and decided to chase me” on the night of December 28, a day after the presidential election, when suspicion was already growing that incumbent President Mwai Kibaki would come out on top of the poll.
The Orange Democratic Movement of opposition candidate Raila Odinga — from the Luo tribe — charged that the tallying process was rigged, sparking a wave of nationwide riots and revenge killings.
Born on January 5 1920, the “mzee” — a Swahili word reserved for respected elders — had not anticipated he would spend his 88th birthday under a tent.
Nganga was a former Mau Mau rebel who fought British settlers between 1952 and 1959. He became a farmer, then a trader, before finally deciding to start school as an octogenarian.
His witty remarks and deft body language draw the admiration and amusement of the people around him, including the eldest of his 15 children.
Despite the hardships he and his family have experienced since Kenya’s polls sparked chaos, Nganga’s eyes never lose their twinkle and the old man says he suffers less from cold than from being prevented from attending classes.
“We were told schools would reopen on January 17 but they didn’t,” he says mournfully. “The desire of my heart is to go to school. If peace is not going to prevail, the government has to take me to another place to go to school.”
Most of the schools in the Eldoret region — among the worst hit by the cycle of tit-for-tat tribal clashes in recent weeks — have remained closed. Some of them were destroyed.
“The government can take me to Nakuru or even Nairobi so that I can go to school,” he suggests, referring to areas where schools have largely reopened.
Kenya had been relatively spared by the kind of deadly ethnic violence that has plagued other nations in the region for years, but the poll dispute has reopened old wounds and the Kikuyu tribe — to which Kibaki and Nganga belong — has been increasingly targeted.
“My desire is to take Ruto, Raila and Kibaki and let them sit down and ask themselves: Why are all these things happening to us?” he says.
William Ruto — from the Kalenjin tribe — is Odinga’s right-hand man and has been accused by Kikuyu tribesmen in western regions of stoking ethnic revenge killings.
“The Luos and the Kalenjins have to stop their behaviour of hatred against the Kikuyus and other communities, otherwise in 2012, it will happen again; they will come and burn our houses again,” Nganga said.
The old man remembers the reasoning behind his decision to start school so late in his life. “Because I’d come to realise that I’d been cheated several times by those people who went to school. The people who have education are the ones who have the money, and everything else,” he says.
Nganga was one of the many beneficiaries of Kibaki’s 2003 decision to make primary education free.
He says one his greatest joys was to learn Kiswahili — or Swahili — after spending the first 84 years of his life speaking only Kikuyu.
“I’m going to live 300 years to go to school; that is the agreement I have between me and my God.” — AFP