In 2004 the Kenyan government promised its people free education for all. No one anticipated that an illiterate octogenarian would be among those turning up at the school gates, but 84-year-old former Mau Mau rebel Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge did just that – as heart-warming true-story drama The First Grader reveals.
Played with immense dignity by Oliver Litondo, Maruge makes his way to a remote primary school, determined to learn to read. Kindly headteacher Jane Obinchu (British actress Naomie Harris) is initially taken aback but the old man’s persistence eventually wins her round. He takes his place among a class of bright-eyed five-year-olds, wearing shorts and knee socks to meet the school’s uniform code, but he and Jane still have to overcome stubborn opponents, both locally and in government, if he is to be allowed to stay.
Maruge’s story is truly remarkable, so it’s a little disappointing that its treatment in The First Grader should be so conventional. But even if the story runs on predictable lines, it remains hugely affecting. Director Justin Chadwick (maker of The Other Boleyn Girl) does a good job balancing gentle humour in the classroom with darker scenes in flashback recalling Maruge’s brutal treatment under British colonial rule (the film fudges things here, however, by playing down Mau Mau atrocities).
Through it all, Maruge’s remains an inspiring figure. As he says himself, education isn’t just for the young: “You should learn until you have soil in your ears.”
On general release from 24th June.