KASARANI, Kenya — For an 85-year-old man in a small Kenyan village, a letter from New York is like a missive carrying the fingerprint of God. The paper has stretched his mind's horizon far beyond the dirt tracks and rough wooden huts that surround him. He has wrapped it in plastic and takes it out reverently.
He has no idea who wrote it, just "a young man," he thinks. But he hopes that one day he'll be able to read it and write a letter back.
The letter came last year after Nganga Maruge made world headlines by deciding to stop hanging around with his friends, smoking, gossiping and whiling away his old age in this village in western Kenya. Instead, when the government promised free primary education for all, he took his cane, collected the school uniform of black shoes, striped socks, tie and little-boy shorts, and went off to first grade.
His is a story of deprivation and lost opportunities. His father refused to let him go to school in the 1920s because the father was afraid to be alone and needed someone to look after the sheep. Still, Maruge says he loved his father very much.
Now, in his old age, Maruge's story has also become one of jealousy and resentment.
Some parents think the old man -- onetime Mau Mau fighter, father of 15 and grandfather of more children than he can count -- is taking attention away from their own children. Others think that where there is international attention, there must be donations. Since they haven't seen any money, they accuse Maruge and school officials of pocketing it.
A campaign is underway to get the old man out of the classroom and transfer the school principal, who is his patron. A demonstration in mid-January outside the school ended with stone throwing.
Maruge says his neighbors have hurt his feelings, and he has few friends left. He just has his homework and his Kiswahili Bible, which he can't yet read.
"They say that I'm stupid. They're saying this education cannot take me anywhere. It can't benefit me," he said. "My only aim is to go to class, and I want to learn the computer, and they're just laughing at me."
When he decided he wanted to get an education, Maruge rejected the local adult education center as a place where people sat around and gossiped. He shocked school officials by asking to be admitted to primary school. Twice they sent him away, quietly hoping he wouldn't come back.
"I wasn't looking at him as a person. I was just looking at his age. I thought he would never learn with these small children," said Principal Jane Obinchu. She told Maruge to buy a uniform and black shoes, sure that he would never go to the expense.
But Maruge sold one of his sheep and bought the items for about $14. He melted Obinchu's Christian heart when he said he wanted to learn so that he could read the Bible.
"I felt that I've reached to God, that I've met God when I started writing using a pen," Maruge said.
Obinchu was worried enough about the reaction that she tried to avoid publicity about Maruge's education.
But after a flood of positive news stories, she and Maruge got the support of education officials and Obinchu made the old man's education her most important project. Last August, impressed by his habit of reporting children who misbehaved, she made him senior head prefect. In that role, he mentors children and gives inspirational speeches at school assemblies.
A widower who was jailed for eight years by Kenya's former British rulers for his Mau Mau anticolonial activities, Maruge lives alone in a cluttered wooden hut. There is one window, and a 1944 bicycle is propped to one side. His school uniform is slung over a stool, and his school tie and bag hang on the end of the bed. The wall is plastered with news articles, certificates honoring his endeavor and a photograph of him in his uniform. He solemnly spoons in a mouthful of the dark, unrefined honey he collects from the forest.
As a young man, he was angered over his lack of education. He put those feelings away, but the thirst for education lay dormant most of his life. Now it has burst out, perhaps too late to keep up with the whirl of his belated ambitions: primary school, secondary school, university and a career in veterinary science.
Although his end-of-year report was mainly A's and A-minuses, his teacher Moses Chemworem described him as "an average student." Chemworem said that Maruge's math work was good but that he struggled with his memory, finding it hard to retain an English word from one day to the next.
The school's motto is "Let's strive together for success," but the school parents committee is bitterly split and Obinchu's opponents have been pressing hard for her removal.