The First Grader

The First Grader

(M) Rialto DVD/BD

When 84-year-old Kenyan Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge turned up to primary school, and was told he needed a uniform to enrol, he came back the next day with cut down trousers.

This illiterate man who had fought for the Mau Mau rebellion against the British occupation during the 1950s was determined to take up his government’s offer of free primary school education for all.

“We are nothing if we cannot read,” he says. And it is easy to see — from the classroom scenes and from the flashbacks to his suffering as a militant young man — how he formed this assessment.

The torture and fighting scenes are violent. By contrast his teacher Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) is kind and supportive and he forms strong bonds with the children whose singing and broad smiles lift the movie into sunnier territory.

Jane fights for Maruge’s place in the school but she is moved far away for her stand. Filmed inKenya, there’s a gentle beauty in the landscape and the setting reinforces Director Justin Chadwick’s belief that, whatever your context, you only need one good teacher to make the difference.

Maruge’s story also shows how important maintaining a literate society is in ensuring human rights are not abused and, likewise, how dangerous it is if we do not learn from the past and value our freedom.

People who’ve suffered as much — and fought for as much — as Maruge have a great deal to teach us in our complacency.

Marjorie Lewis-Jones

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