Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Maruge: Uhuru!

Each of us has our own story.
It is our story to live & ours to tell.
I have recently come across a tale so startling it could change you for always
 ...if you let it. 
 I shall tell you that story in a way no other can, because Kimani Ng'ang'a Maruge's story, in the strangest of ways intersects my own.
  Maruge had received a letter. A very important letter.
A letter that he decided he simply must be able to read for himself.
Having heard tell that the Kenyan Government had boldly abolished school fees & opened the educational doors to all, including the previously uneducated poor, Maruge purposed that he would join the millions of children in the rush & shove through the open classroom doors; after all the Government had said, hadn't they, that education was now available to everyone!
At the age of 84, as he lined up with the throngs of eager students at the gates of Kapkenduiywa Primary School, school socks pulled knee high, long pants carefully hand sewn & modified to school-suitable proportions, Maruge was met with puzzlement, derision & cynicism.
 Whatever was an old man like him doing wanting to go to school?
 Was he senile?
picture found here
No, indeed not.
 Maruge was a man with a firmly held pencilled purpose.
via google
What we are born to does not necessarily define who will become, nor does who we are in our youth, reveal the final result of who we will be when we are old. So it was with Maruge. Born into poverty & a life of grueling work, subsistence farming, the days of colonialism & with no educational possibilities.
 Maruge was Kikuyu.
 The land defined his peoples' identity even as cattle define the Maasai to this day.
Kenya is a very young nation & it was still fledging at the time that my Rob was born in Nairobi in 1956.
Two brothers lived a  slightly charmed fanciful life oblivious to the growing turmoil all around them.    
Rob was to come to regard these years as an idyllic childhood where his family still "worked" & his wonder of the world had not yet tarnished.
Everyday fun & spontaneity...pageants, schooling, holidays at the coast
and safaris continued on as usual
but...the pot was beginning to come to the boil.
Rob's mother, grandmother & elder brother.

At this time Maruge was a strong young man with a beautiful wife & two young children.
Rob's parents were dreamers, hopeful immigrants, longing for new opportunities as they eagerly turned their backs on the bleakly closed doors of post-war life in their British homeland.
Things were about to turn very ugly..the Mau Mau were birthing- 
a contingent of edgy, radical warriors arising out of a crucible of desperate unrest & resistance to colonial oppression & subjugation (as they saw it).
Maruge became Mau Mau.
 You didn't join, you "became" Mau Mau under oath..swearing allegiance unto death.
This time became widely known as the Kenyan Emergency & that, it surely was, as the lives of the European community were no longer safe & yes, there were casualties & fatalities amongst them, however, that was nothing to the brutality that was carried out by the British in retaliation, as described
 by Christine Elkin in her book

Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya
 "A major work of history that for the first time reveals the violence and terror at the heart of Britain's civilizing mission in Kenya

As part of the Allied forces, thousands of Kenyans fought alongside the British in World War II. But just a few years after the defeat of Hitler, the British colonial government detained nearly the entire population of Kenya's largest ethnic minority, the Kikuyu-some one and a half million people.

The compelling story of the system of prisons and work camps where thousands met their deaths has remained largely untold-the victim of a determined effort by the British to destroy all official records of their attempts to stop the Mau Mau uprising, the Kikuyu people's ultimately successful bid for Kenyan independence.

Caroline Elkins, an assistant professor of history at Harvard University, spent a decade in London, Nairobi, and the Kenyan countryside interviewing hundreds of Kikuyu men and women who survived the British camps, as well as the British and African loyalists who detained them." 

via Amazon
Patsy, Rob's grandmother was as ditsy & delightful as could be
but eventually fled from her drunken French second husband & the threats of The Emergency to begin a new life in New Zealand with the rest of the family.

Maruge was captured, tortured & imprisoned for some 10 traumatic years, losing all of his beloved family in the process. It seems he must have married again once released since he eventually attended school with two of his 30 grandchildren, although apparently, of his 15 children only 5 survived.

Even as Rob's family in 1963, packed up all their worldly possessions & fled Kenya for their very lives, things were metamorphosing in the African Nation & by Christmas of that same year Independence would be won for the Kenyan people & Maruge would be released from prison.
 Freedom had come....
 Uhuru! Freedom! Uruhu! Freedom!

Many years later in 1978 as a young dental student of 17, I was to meet Rob on a youth service trip to Western Samoa. A month later, when we returned "home" our romantic course was set. It was in those early days that I was also enamored with the African Wilbur Smith novels and I would read them aloud to Rob during our precious brief rendezvous, as we lived hundreds of miles apart at that time.
 Rob had very little recall of his childhood in Kenya when I met him, the family having emigrated when he was seven & distanced themselves from their Kenyan past once settled here in New Zealand; however, the reawakening of memory & attachment was to happen for Rob over many decades beginning with the books I had read to him.

I have come to believe that what effects one of us effects us all.
 This is especially true in families & in communities.

It was in this same year of 1963 that Martin Luther King would state:
“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
 I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.
 This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
 – Martin Luther King, Jr.

 and he would declare "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere"

It would be another 40 years before the day would come that Maruge chose to change the course of history by turning up at school. Yes, history...he is the oldest person in the world to have started school... & at the age of 84!

What I wasn't to know was that Rob's family faithfully carried with them on their journey south, a carefully preserved & fiercely protected box of bigotry & prejudice that would challenge my life, health, marriage & existence for the next 33 years. 
At the beginning of this year I found my word for the year.
That word was LIBERTY
Uhuru! Freedom!

In my research I came across two candid views of the Colonial Kenyan legacy herehere

In this strange & modern world it was serendipitous that I should find the advertisement below via Pinterest. Within a few weeks I had been given movie tickets for my birthday & what should be screening a day or two later but The First Grader...the story of one Kimani Ng'ang'a Maruge.
I had romantic notions that this would be a wonderful heart warming tale, but let me tell you it is not.
It is a frank, direct, brutal & inspiring tale of courage & persistence....& it is heart-stirring! 
As Maruge was to say "We must remember the past.
We must do better."
...."I will not stop learning until I have dirt in my ears"

Really all we must do is:

Ears & eyes,  minds & hearts wide open.

via pinterest
Kimani Ng'ang'a Maruge eventually traveled to New York. The only time in his life that he would go in a plane. His add his support to the global campaign for education at a United Nations summit. I found a lovely personal reflection of that visit by David Archer of Action Aid here
Below is the inspiring trailer for the movie: The First Grader.


  1. Hi Catherine, that was an intense post, thank you for sharing your family history. I hope that this year you do find your freedom too.

    What an incredible, yet heartbreaking story to be told of Kimani Maruge, may he rest in peace.

  2. So much to think about, Katie!
    I am going to show the video to my students. School IS a privilege.
    You tell a wonderful story, my friend.
    LOVE to you today, good CR!

  3. A heart moving story so beautifully told Catherine.

    Who we are is an accident of birth, but who we become is up to us.
    When opportunity finally came for Maruge he grabbed it, hungry for learning, a basic need he had been denied for so long.
    I would love to have been in the UN the day he graced them with his presence!
    It is Maruage and people like him whom we should be honoring as the 'inspirational' people of our world - not the rich moguls of industry.

    Wishing you and Rob a wonderful weekend!
    Shane x


So lovely of you to leave a comment. Thank you!! ♥

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