The First Grader
(M) Oliver Litondo, Lwander Jawar, Naomie Harris
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.
This unusual story gained worldwide media recognition. Yet this meant little to Maruge (played in the movie by Oliver Litondo) who treasured, above all, the chance to learn.
“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 (played by Lwander Jawar) — how he formed this assessment.
The torture and fighting scenes are violent. In one he is trussed upside down like a chicken and his torturers whip him to try to get him to renounce his Mau Mau oath to fight for freedom. His family and baby are killed in front of him. A pencil is thrust into his ear drum.
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 which stirred up frictions that extended back to old tribal divisions and legacies of British occupation and forwardto threaten to people in their political or administrative careers.
The end of the movie sees Maruge finally comprehending a letter which promises to radically change his future. It’s a saccharine but tear-provoking moment.
Filmed in Kenya, 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.