01 02 03 Africa Expat Wives Club: The First Grader movie about Maruge - the oldest Kenyan primary school pupil 04 05 15 16 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 31 32 33

The First Grader movie about Maruge - the oldest Kenyan primary school pupil

The First Grader
Watched a TV review of a British film called 'The First Grader' last night. Not sure how it managed to fall so far under my radar since it was released in May (US)/June (UK), but often foreign movies and documentaries made about Kenya are poorly circulated here. The TV program I watched was one of those reviews that basically tell you the whole story line and a lot of behind the scenes info too - so I'm not really sure I need to see the movie now - but I think I'd still like to - if only for the footage of Kenya and use of real school children as actors.

I am gutted that they didn't call the movie 'Form One' - which would have been a lot more apt and less corny, however, it's the true story of a man in his 80's who asserted his right to free primary education in 2004 when the Kenya government announced that primary education would be free for ALL (Kenyans). My husband remembers hearing this story on the radio (Kiss FM) and being aware of it at the time back in '04. I am ashamed to say that I was not.

The only problem is that the man, Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge, faced strong opposition to his plan. His teacher Jane (with a curiously South African sounding accent in the movie) championed the old man's right to learn to read and write - she too faced threats and abuse from local authorities and pressure from her husband to give up the old man as a lost cause. The sub plot is an exploration of the old man's personal demons from the past - he had been a Mau Mau freedom fighter and, once captured, was abused by the colonial officers who imprisoned him as a young man.

I gather that international reviewers found the movie fairly saccharine and the directing too focused on tugging on the audience's heartstrings (a lot of close ups of the lead's rheumy eyes etc), but that the actors' performances (particularly the children, Jane and the old man) were actually very good, effectively saving the performance from sickly sweet.

In 2005 Maruge got the chance to fly to New York to speak to the UN about the importance of primary education.  Having endured the loss of his property in 2008 post election violence and a subsequent stint in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp (while continuing to attend school), in June 2008 Maruge was moved to Nairobi to a retirement home.  Undeterred he 'reported' to a new school in Kariobangi.  What a character.  Sadly Maruge died in 2009 of stomach cancer.

Movie Trailer:

The real Maruge:

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