This undated photo shows Durge Kami (2nd left), a 69-year-old high-schooler enrolled in the tenth grade with students the age of his grandchildren. (The Kathmandu Post/ANN)
KATHMANDU, Nepal - Last summer, Durge Kami became an overnight internet sensation. As a 69-year-old high-schooler enrolled in the tenth grade with students the age of his grandchildren, Kami’s story had all the right ingredients for a viral hit—he was born into poverty; faced marginalisation throughout his life; lived alone in a house without electricity; walked three hours to school and back each day; and he doggedly refused to give up on his dream. As the word spread, Kami was featured in news portals from around the world and even became the subject of a story by the popular micro documentary channel Great Big Story. Their video, When the Oldest Kid in Class is 69 Years Old, has received four million hits on YouTube so far.
But now, a short year later, Kami finds himself back at square one. Like hundreds of thousands of young students that travel to Kathmandu in pursuit of higher education, Kami, now 70, too has been visiting various colleges in the Capital, but without much luck.
“So far I’ve been rejected by five different colleges,” he says, “But still I keep going to a new school every day, hoping my luck will change.”
Kami travelled to Kathmandu two weeks ago with the help of a social worker who runs a shelter for orphans and the differently-abled. He appeared in this year’s Secondary Education Exams (SEE) and passed with a GPA score of 1.2. Regulations rolled out by the government this year, however, require students to secure a minimum GPA of 1.6 if they want to pursue the Humanities stream like Kami does.
“Because I enrolled into school so late in life, I was never really very good at picking up on the lessons, even though I wanted to,” explains Kami, “But my grades had never been a problem, until now.”
A life on the margins
But despite the recent string of rejections, Kami remains upbeat. He has been dealing with rejection all his life.
Durge Kami was born into the marginalised Kami community as the youngest of 10 siblings. He lost his mother while still an infant and his father a few years later and spent his life working as hired help, tilling land in his native Syangja or hauling load in India. But Kami remembers himself as someone who always had a desire to go to school, even though he was never in a position to afford it.
“At that time, the school in our village congregated under a large tree,” he says, “but it was only for the ‘high caste’ kids. Sometimes I would sneak in and try to sit in the classes, but I’d get chased away, admonished for being an ‘untouchable’ who ‘reeked’.”
It would be six decades until he got another opportunity. Kami enrolled into the third grade at the Khare Primary School on April 14, 2005.
But school, he would learn, was not easy. He was laughed at and picked upon by his much younger classmates, and remained weak academically, often intimidating young teachers because of his advanced age. “I’ve been labeled crazy more than once,” he says, “but what hurt the most was when I was getting ready to join high school, some parents protested, accusing me of being a human trafficker, enrolling just to scout out vulnerable girls.”
Eventually, Kami would blend in and develop a close circle of friends who remained at hand to give him extra tutorial lessons to improve his grades. His journey would then culminate into a major victory when he passed the SEE this year as one of the oldest students to do so.
Yet, for all his accrued fame and goodwill, Kami now finds himself at an unusual position where his dogged desire to continue his studies is not quite enough to get him a seat in a classroom.
“Every college I visit, people recognise me and sympathise with my situation, but in the end, turn me away,” he says, “This week, however, the Dillibazar-based Sagarmatha College agreed to enroll me (with full scholarship), as long as I got a waiver from the Ministry of Education. I am currently working on that petition.”
According to Kami, he intends to implore the ministry to grant him permission to join the Humanities stream, despite his grades, considering his age and the fact that he was a virtual illiterate until a decade ago.
Should his petition succeed, Kami intends to go all the way. “I have a desire to study up to the Master’s level,” he says with certainly, “I don’t dream of being a doctor or an engineer as so many of my classmates did. My desire is to prove that as long as you have the will, age should not be a barrier when it comes to education. And along the way, if I can inspire the young and old, then this long hard life will not have been for nothing.”