Sunday, February 05, 2012

The First Grader

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, in part, that "everyone has the right to education."  It is a right that is central to the plot of a beautiful film called The First Grader.

Based on the true story of Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge, a Kenyan who, at age 84, insisted on attending primary school so that he could learn to read after Kenya instituted free primary education for all, The First Grader is more than simply a cute "old man goes to school with six-year-olds" film.  In frequent and sometimes very intense flashbacks, we learn that Maruge fought against the British in the Mau Mau Rebellion of the 1950s.  While historians are divided over the significance of the rebellion in terms of its impact on Kenyan independence (which came in 1963), the Mau Mau rebels have been honored in Kenya for their contributions to the cause.

The First Grader also touches on the brutality of the British response to the Mau Mau Rebellion, an issue that continues to attract attention in spite of the fact that the British have been gone from Kenya--the former British East Africa--for almost fifty years.  In April 2011, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office admitted that it had withheld thousands of documents relating to the treatment of Mau Mau detainees in Kenya in spite of repeated requests for their release.  Shortly thereafter, a British court gave four Kenyans the right to sue the British government for human rights violations.  Historian David Anderson noted in The Guardian last summer, "Of the four elderly Kenyan plaintiffs who brought this case, two were allegedly the victims of castration, one claims to have been savagely beaten and left for dead on a mortuary slab, and another was allegedly the victim of repeated sexual abuse--all acts conducted during British 'interrogation' of suspects against whom no crime had been proved."

Perhaps what makes The First Grader work so well is the contrast it poses between the brutality of Kenya's colonial past and the hope for the future that free universal education offers.  Both came together in the person of Kimani Maruge, who died in 2009 at the age of 89.

(Thanks to Liz Feiner for recommending this film.)