‘Please teach me to read’
The ability to read is an important skill for anyone especially, as in The First Grader, if you have lived a very long life without being able to do so and wish to learn.
Maruge (Oliver Litondo) has a learning need that he feels is essential to him becoming a fully realised and useful member of society: he wants to be able to read and write. After all, the government in Kenya has a policy to offer a proper education for its citizens as it believes that that will further the country’s development. Maruge has one small issue that could make this learning desire far more difficult than he would have thought. It’s not a lack of enthusiasm for studying, difficulty in attending classes or even finding a school uniform; rather it is his advanced years. At over 80 Maruge seriously skews the age demographic at the local primary school. His teacher, Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris), is determined that he should receive the education he desires, but her bosses do not approve and she has to face a lot of conflict within the system. Additionally, as the media become aware of this most unusual student, Maruge’s past life is revealed to have been traumatic and horrific – he was a Mau-Mau prisoner in British detention camps during the 1953 Kenyan uprising, a horrific regime that cost many their lives and/or their sanity.
Based upon the true story of Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge, The First Grader follows the story of its elderly subject as he tries to learn to read and write, as well as the political and financial problems that he faces in his pursuit of these skills. He eventually became a national face of celebrity, recognised by US President Obama among many others – indeed Maruge attended a United Nations summit promoting the adoption of free primary education. The First Grader is a film that could very easily have fallen into a number of traps which could have made it difficult to engage with. For example, it could have been a notably anti-British film or ignored the British colonial horrors altogether, neither of which would have been acceptable. Neither does it just offer its audience a simple story, effectively an old person variant of Dangerous Minds (1995) with a nice landscape, witty age related learning moments and social gaffes.
Instead The First Grader is thoroughly engaging, well acted and constructed and, importantly, addresses a number of issues from the past and the present, including internal Kenyan politics, tribal history (the tragedies that have occurred throughout Maruge’s long life are truly heart rending) as well as social matters, not only in the countryside environments where many of the characters live but also in the development of the cities. There are some genuinely lovely moments in the film, most notable in the classroom scenes. ‘When I am older I will become a doctor and make you better,’ declares one of the young classmates to his ancient fellow pupil Maruge, who is so determined to succeed that he declares, ‘I’ll be a good pupil, I’ll work very hard.’
The First Grader is a compelling story that could very easily have got away with showing the uplifting and heart warming tale of an old man receiving an education, but doesn’t flinch on addressing political and social issues, which creates a far richer and more rounded whole.