23 January 2012


Last night I watched one of the most wrenching and inspirational films I've ever seen.  The First Grader is based on the true story of Kimani Maruge, a Kenyan man who enrolled in elementary education at the age of 84 after the Kenyan government announced universal and free education in 2003.  Sounds all warm and fuzzy, right?  It gets much, much deeper.  Maruge (pronounced mah-ROO-gay) is a man possessed by memories.  He grew up in poverty, in a family which had no money to pay for education.  As a young man, he married and had a child.  Then came Kenya's struggle for independence from colonial Great Britain in the 1950s ~ referred to by the white press as the Mau Mau Uprising.  Many Mau Mau freedom fighters were from the Kikuyu tribe (though not all Kikuyu were Mau Mau activists).  Individuals from some tribes were collaborators with the British, assisting in their cruel repression of local insurgents.  As in all wars, atrocities were committed by both sides, but only Mau Mau violence received attention from the world press.  Please refer to the excellent Wikipedia summary of the uprising for more cultural and historic detail.

Because Kimani Maruge took the oath of allegiance to the cause of Uhuru (the Swahili word for 'freedom'), he was singled out by the British for special treatment.  I won't give too much away, in hopes that you will rent the film (available through Netflix).  It is enough to know that he endured eight years of imprisonment and torture before being released by the new Kenyan government.

So the story of an 84-year-old man whose limp requires the assistance of a walking staff, whose eyesight and hearing are failing, and whose spirit has never been crushed, seeking to learn to read in a school overcrowded with children only tall enough to come up to his waist, takes on a poignancy that borders on heartbreak.  Yet it is Maruge's spirit which buoys us up as his story unfolds, as he endures and must overcome unexpected obstacles to his dream ~ and an unexpected ally in reaching out to fulfill it.  

Because I was once a teacher, I'm a sucker for well-made films about education.  Films like Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Mr. Holland's Opus, Lean On Me, The Class, Good Will Hunting, and To Sir, With Love offer insights into the process of learning from the point of view of teachers, or from (usually) the point of view of teenage students.  The First Grader is in a class by itself, the story of a complex elderly man who finds challenge and redemption among the young children who are his classmates.  I would watch this film over and over.

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