NAIROBI — She grew up in Kenya under colonial rule, when women didn’t get an education.
Now in her 90s, Priscilla Sitienei is changing that, attending elementary school — and inspiring a generation.
She started five years ago as a kindergartener at a boarding shool near Eldoret. She’s in fourth grade today.
“I had grandchildren and great-grandchildren who shunned school,” she says by phone from Ndalat. “That made me mad. I decided I have to show them that education is important.”
During colonial times, some Kenyan hospitals did not keep birth records. Sitienei’s exact age is unclear, but she says she was born around 1923, when a famine plagued her hometown. Growing up, relatives told her she barely survived that famine as a toddler, which gave her a rough estimate of her birth year.
If confirmed by the Guinness World Records, she would be the oldest pupil in elementary school.
The last such honor by the Guinness World Records went to another Kenyan, Kimani Maruge, who in 2004 was named the oldest person to begin primary school. Five years later, he died at age 90.
Making up for lost time
Though Sitienei worked as a traditional midwife for decades, she says there’s still a lot to learn.
“My favorite subject is math,” the nonagenarian says. “Now that I’m in school, I know the right dosage to give the women who I help deliver their babies.”
Sitienei got married at a young age and focused on raising her 10 children.
“I could not go to school even if I wanted,” she says. “In my time, educating a woman was considered a waste of time and money.”
‘Education has no age limit’
She enthusiastically describes her love for school and her fellow pupils, some of whom she helped bring into this world.
“They call me gogo,” she says, using the word for grandmother in her local Kalenjin tribe. “We play in swings during recess, we talk, I like school.”
Sitienei has a special dorm room tucked away in a corner, where she doles out wisdom to her proteges. Outside her door is a sign that says “education has no age limit.”
David Kinyanjui, the principal of Leaders Vision Preparatory School, describes her as a model pupil.
“She advices our girls, she advices our boys,” Kinyanjui says. “She participates in everything, including PE (physical education). She’s also good at math and science, and she’s such a good storyteller.”
Sitienei’s enthusiasm is already paying off.
Her three great grandchildren are her classmates. They have friendly competitions on who’ll make the best grades.
Last year, Sitienei was the leading student in third grade.
“Her great-granchildren could not believe she did better than them, that really motivated them, one of them even cried,” the principal says.
Now they work even harder to beat her.