The First Grader
By Sr. Rose Pacatte, F.S.P.
When the Kenyan government announces in 2002 that free
public education is available for all, Kimani
N'gan'ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo), at the age of 84, lines up to register, only
to be turned away. He then appears at the rural school run by Jane Obinchu (Naomie
Harris), who laments that they don’t have enough desks for the students they do
have. Another teacher tells Kimani he cannot come unless he has the proper
cannot be deterred; he shows up wearing the uniform of a schoolboy. Jane admits
him, and he begins to learn to read.
erupts from the parents, the community, the radio show host who mocks Kimani
and criticizes Jane. Jane’s husband barely supports her and eventually Jane’s
supervisor and the authorities in Nairobi interfere.
the other hero of the story; she persists in setting up a school with no
electricity, running water, or enough desks for her eager students. She, and
Kimani, face down a bureaucracy that stumbles over itself.
first released in 2010, is based on a true story and through flashbacks we get
the backstory of Kimani’s life. He was part of the Mau Mau uprising against the
British colonial government in Kenya in the 1950s. Kimani’s wife and child were
murdered and he was tortured. When he was released from prison just before
Kenyan independence, he had nothing – and he did not know how to read.
Grader” is a moving and important film, especially as the United States faces
its own crisis in education and literacy levels continue to drop. The film
ignites a passion for learning and education for all.
Chadwick, who directed the historical drama “The Other Boleyn Girl”, presents
the gritty realism of rural Africa and the heart of people who want to learn.
Peacock, who wrote the script for “The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the
Witch and the Wardrobe” has created believable characters that introduce us
into a real world this time, of which we know very little.
There is humor in the film, too, which friends
assure me is very “Kenyan”. Old men sit outside the only store for miles
around. One man insists his sister went to school with Michelle Obama in South
Africa. At the end of the film, the
radio host, excited and happy for Kimani’s success in school, announces that
for sure, one day, a Kenyan will be the president of the United States. With the recent “birther” issues in the news,
this really made me laugh given that it was written and in production just as
President Obama took office. Kenyan people, I am told, love to dream and to
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