The premise is irresistible. When the government of Kenya announces it will offer free primary education for the first time, an 84-year-old man shows up on the doorstep of a rural school, ready for class. Having never had the benefit of an education, Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge figures it’s never too late to start. Towering over the little children at their desks, he is just as eager to learn.
“The First Grader” is an inspiring story about the universal human urge to make our lives better. But this is more than just a high-concept fable; Maruge’s story is true. As adapted by screenwriter Ann Peacock and director Justin Chadwick (“The Other Boleyn Girl”), the film spins the tale in a timeless fashion, even as it builds a context from the specifics of one man’s life.
Maruge (Oliver Litondo) was part of the generation that helped liberate Kenya from British colonial rule. He spent his youth fighting for freedom, and endured horrors occasionally shown in flashback. Now, what he really wants is the education he never had the time or opportunity to obtain.
Although the announcement of free education was meant to liberate families from the onerous school fees that keep so many African children out of the classroom, Maruge spots a chance and takes it. But when he arrives at the school gate, teacher Jane (Naomie Harris) turns him away. She has no legal reason, so she says he’ll need books and a pencil. Maruge returns with both. Then she says he’ll need a uniform. He comes back wearing a school uniform – short pants and all. Scene by scene, he begins to warm the heart of a teacher who’s strict nature is, of course, only a feature of having kept a rural school on its feet for so long.
Litondo is wonderful as Maruge, showing both the strength and humour of the man. Although he depends on a walking stick to get around and his eyes aren’t what they used to be, he’s living proof that you’re never too old to learn. [Synopsis courtesy of Cameron Bailey, Toronto International Film Festival]