At times both heartwarming and heartbreaking, The First Grader is based on a true story. In 2002, the Kenyan government announced that primary education would now be free to all, not expecting an 84-year-old man to take them at their word. But Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge would not be dissuaded from his quest to learn to read, no matter how late in life.
When he shows up to claim his place at the village school, he is initially turned away for not having pencils and an exercise book. When he returns with those, he is turned away for not having a school uniform. But when he shows up in an adult facsimile of the uniform, pencils and book in hand, the head teacher Jane agrees to let him have a chance. Sitting in the cramped classroom surrounded by 5 and 6-year-olds Maruge begins his education.
But as he learns, he flashes back to his earlier life. And that is what gives this movie its depth. Maruge fought with the Mau Mau against the British to end their colonial rule of Kenya. He was captured and tortured and his family was murdered. I will warn you that some of these scenes are brutal, but they are necessary to this man’s story. He is in essence one of the founders of modern Kenya, and yet he is being forced to beg for an education.
Maruge is initially greeted by the kids with a wary eye, but soon he is playing and teaching them about what freedom really means and some of the scenes with the kids are so touching. But his presence in the school creates problems for the wonderful head teacher Jane when her superiors think he is taking a seat that should be for a 5-year-old, and the villagers are all disturbed that an old man is going to school.
And soon word leaks out to the big city and before you know it, the press is all over the story of an 84-year-old first grader. And this too creates problems for Maruge and Jane. People think he is being paid for his story and try to get money from him and the school. The powers that be decide he should go to the adult education center farther away, but one visit convinces him that the school with children is where he needs to be. When push comes to shove, he makes a trek to Nairobi and to the Ministry of Education where he strips down to show them the horrific scars he earned to pave the way for their freedom. He is there to save the job of the teacher he respects, but also to put the bureaucrats in their place. He may be old, he may limp because the British cut off a couple of his toes, but he still has a fighting spirit for what matters.
This is a truly uplifting movie. I would recommend The First Grader for everyone. It is not your usual story or your usual location. It has great music and wonderful acting. You’ll learn some African history. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. And you will be glad to have seen it.