Mr. Kimani Maruge, age 84, has just enrolled in first grade.
An article in the New York Times tells of a man in Kenya who, until the government recently declared free education to all until grade 8, had never been to school in his life. Soon after the declaration, national school enrolment jumped from 5.9 million to 7.3 million. Most of that increase was children of normal school age, but also among them were older prospective students like Mr. Maruge. To read the article, click here.
Although the photograph and story of Mr. Maruge create feelings of admiration, the more I thought about the story, the less I focused on this remarkable individual, and more on the circumstances that led to this man's remarkable action.
Why, for example, did Mr. Maruge have to wait so long? We understand the struggle in many parts of the world where families depend on the work of their children to survive. So why have so few places tried to find alternatives to traditional fulltime classroom education in order to reduce the cost to families of educating their children?
Why were the local school officials less than welcoming to Mr. Maruge? So many people responded to the offer of free education in Kenya that his first grade classroom was overwhelmed with 109 students. It would seem that the authorities did not expect so many to come, an unrealistic assumption when everyone, especially the poor, know that illiteracy will keep you poor. If the authorities had in fact expected people to flood the schools, it then appears that they expected Mr. Maruge's poor first grade teacher to teach 109 children to read this year. One might think that the government is hoping that most of these students (or their families) will give up so things can go back to normal.
Why does this news story appeal to our sentimentality instead of to our sense of justice? Why wasn't the Times reporter outraged that in the 21st century so many childen still do not have access to education and so few teachers are left to do such impossible work? We have known for decades that basic education and basic health care raise the wellbeing of a country more than any other factors, yet for many countries around the world education continually is allocated a disproportionately small share of national budgets, and is administered by agencies with the least political power. Perhaps it is because education is powerful to change not only economies, but also to change minds. The rich know this, and so do the poor.
"We never knew that such people would come," said S. K. Karaba, senior deputy director in Kenya's Department of Education. "They still want to be taught. There is an urge."