Starting school at 96; Africa’s 5 oldest learners and a teacher who just won’t stop

Kenya's Kimani Maruge  until his death held the record.  (Photo/ AFP/ Getty)

ON January 12, Google through its famous doodle celebrated the first school day of an African student who became the oldest person to start primary school, at the ripe old age of 84.

Kimani Nganga Maruge, 84, sits on 19 January 2008 in Eldoret, western Kenya

Kimani Maruge’s feat in 2004 earned him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records, in addition to inspiring the well received movie, The First Grader. He was in school with two of his grandchildren, as he took advantage of the government’s decision a year earlier to introduce free primary schooling.

Maruge died in 2009, but there have been no shortages of senior citizens trooping back to both traditional and adult school, many emerging triumphant. On the other side of the desk, there are also been teachers still imparting knowledge well into their golden years. In no order, we take a look at some of the more inspiring:

1: Akasease Kofi Boakye Yiadom, current age 104, Ghana

The World War II veteran graduated in 2009 from university, where he had enrolled three years aged 96. A former teacher, Boakye Yiadom in an interview on graduation said education had no end, “as far as your brain can work alright, you eyes can see alright, and your ears can hear alright…”

He is widely read and quoted in several books and studies, with most of his written and cited work focusing on his experiences as a teacher, both in colonial and independent Ghana.

2: Priscilla Sitienei, 90, Kenya

Like Maruge, the ability to read the Bible was also an inspiration for Priscilla to go back to school five years ago, in addition to taking advantage of the abolition of user fees by the Kenyan government. Like Maruge, she has also made prefect.

She is a strong candidate to be the world’s oldest primary school pupil. A midwife of 65 years, she has helped deliver some of her own classmates, the BBC reported last week.

“Gogo (local language for grandmother) has been a blessing to this school….she is loved by every pupil, they all want to learn and play with her,” her headmaster David Kinyanjui told the British public broadcaster.

 3: Philip Kizito, 78, Uganda

Kizito in 2009 enrolled at the Universal School of Adult Literacy in Masaka, central Uganda, seeking to complete A-level and join a university for a degree in Microfinance Management.

He was reported to be studying Divinity, History, Entrepreneurship and Luganda, having taken time of from managing a small business.

The results of the A-level exam were released in March 2011, where he scored below the cut off mark, to his acute disappointment. It is unknown as to whether he intends to try again.

4: Pa Amodu Alimi, 82, Nigeria

Alimi in 2012 graduated from the Lagos State University, where he signed up in 2004, with a Sociology degree. The father of seven said his decision to pursue a degree was in fulfilment of his dream to become an academic, something he was unable to do when younger.

“When I retired from [Lagos University Teaching Hospital] in 1992, I didn’t want to be an old man who would stay indoor and wait for three basic meals from his children. So, I saw going back to school as an opportunity, which I lost while working as a civil servant, ” he told Nigerian media upon graduation.

“I was determined to bear with any negative and positive experiences my going back to school could bring at my age,” he sad.

Alimi did not take any exam twice, attributing this to God. One of the main challenges had been waking up early to catch a bus to school, he said.

He is said to be now studying for a Masters, and harbours hopes of attaining a doctorate.

5: Tsungirirai Hungwe-Chimbunde, 72, Zimbabwe

Tsungirari in 2005 was already setting standards, graduating that year with a degree in n Reproductive Health and Family Sciences from the Womens University in Africa.

She was a deputy minister in the 1990s, and said that during her time women were excluded from education. “I only enrolled for my university degree at 60. I could not do it at a tender age. Having acquired my diploma in nursing, the traditional profession for a black woman person, I got married and had three children,” she told the Zimbabwean publication.

“All other women should know that age is just a number. Being educated opens someone’s mind. One is able to think outside the box, get a confidence boost and earn respect. Im now able to express myself much better and understand issues and interpret them better. I wish I had such qualifications during my time as Minister, I always look back and say I could have done better.”

6: Nontisikelelo Qwelane, 94, South Africa

South Africa’s oldest teacher, she teaches at the Metropolitan International College White River in Mpumalanga, eastern South Africa.

She was born in the Eastern Cape in 1920 and begun her schooling at a missionary school nine years later, promptly falling in love with learning.

Her teaching career started in 1940, and in 1998 registered for a masters course, to add to her two undergraduate degrees and two diplomas.

Her two daughters, now nearing their seventies, and her older sister also plumped for teaching careers. When asked how it is she keeps at it, she says she does not feel any aches and pains in her body when she is in class.

In 2013 president Jacob Zuma awarded her the Order of the Baobab for her outstanding contribution to schooling. The award is given to South African citizens of exemplary service.

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