THE FIRST GRADER: To Learn Is To Liberate

Film Review / By Justin Chadwick / 2010 / English / 105 minutes.


A scene from The First Grader

Of course, it is never too late to dream. THE FIRST GRADER is an inspired film about education, based on the world’s oldest primary school student’s inspiring true story. Maruge was 84 when the Kenyan government announced free education for all citizens. When the small kids of his village excitedly run to enrol themselves in the school, this poor old man also limps towards the crowded gate of the primary school, in a poor village in Kenya. Obviously, he is frowned upon. He comes back in the school uniform. His determination to learn to read was too strong to neglect.

Jane, the young head teacher, having been impressed by this old man’s keen interest, gives him admission, despite objections from her colleagues and parents. But the real troubles begin there: the higher officials of the educational ministry, parents and locals come and ask her to remove him from school. She doesn’t listen. People blame it an unbearably awkward idea to teach an old man with 5-year old kids, whereas he could have gone to the adults’ school. He once tries the adults’ school, and finds it a place meant for anything except learning. He returns with disappointment and stays along with Jane’s classes.

As the media turn up to report this 84 year old man’s primary school attendance, Jane is soon accused of gaining fame selling the future of other kids. The parents allege that she spends more time for Maruge. As the educational ministry forcefully makes her remove Maruge from the roll, she decides to keep him in the school as an unpaid teaching assistant. By the time, the small kids had made strong bond with their aged classmate. The tribalism also plays its nasty role; people start threatening her and it eventually becomes a mob attack on the school. Her husband keeps getting calls saying that Jane has turned an unfaithful wife. Alarmed, the husband requests her not to take unnecessary risks for an old man. Jane gets a transfer to a school 300 miles away and a new teacher comes to the village school. But, it was now the turn of the pupils to rise in an organic protest against this step. Maruge also does his part: he goes to Nairobi and meets the highest dignitaries of the educational ministry, shows the scars he had during the freedom fight, and demands them to send Jane back to the village school where she belonged.

Maruge has a past, valiant and poignant: he fought along with his Mau Mau tribe against the colonial British forces. They killed his family, brutally persecuted him and looted his life. When he was supposed to be in the school, he was fighting and was thereafter imprisoned. He keeps a letter handed over by his country’s President during the independence day celebration. He wants to read it for himself. And each time he takes the letter and looks into the printed words, he realises that his eyesight is fading. This official letter was an offer of compensation for the years he spent in jail.

This is a beautiful true story about an old man’s untiring struggle to learn to read. And a young woman teacher’s virtuous courage to support him. The teacher – student relationship is exceptional in every sense of the word: a very old student and a teacher of his granddaughter’s age. Selfless help is the real help, as it always involves sacrifice. The power of education, particularly empowering education, for a nation like Kenya is more than a necessity, though one can cynically argue about its westernising consequences. The very first shot of seeds being sown in a ploughed land, a greenish memory of Maruge about his past, is symbolic. The film reminds us that we have a past and its sacrifices have to be acknowledged, not with technical compensatory measures, but with compassion and love.

The film, before it ends, shows a snap of the real heroic Maruge, standing with two of his young classmates. We learn that Maruge’s name has entered the Guinness book of records for being the oldest person to go to primary school and he gave a lecture on education at the United Nations Assembly. The director Justin Chadwick and his team deserve appreciation not only for making this movie but also for the efforts they have made to support the poor Kenyan kids who acted in the movie. Oliver Litondo as Maruge was just captivating, particularly his sane, deep, painful eyes.


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