The First Grader is the story of Kimane Maruge, an 84 year old Kikuyu Kenyan who, when the government announced universal primary education in 2003, presented himself at the village primary school requesting that he be taught to read.
He is turned away, but persists and is eventually taken into the class. The story was national news in Kenya at the time and in 2005 Maruge was flown to New York to attend the United Nations Millennium Development Summit, at which he addressed the delegates on the importance of free primary education.
The story is a heart-warming and inspirational one and the director and publicist for the film make much of the fact that it is “a triumphant true story” and “this is based on the true life story of a man’s determination to learn, the power of education and the shocking untold history of British colonial rule in Kenya”. Except that it isn’t true.
The writer and director have chosen to explain the inspiring story of Maruge’s determination to succeed by the use of flashbacks to depict the horrors that he experienced at the time of Mau-Mau.
The flashbacks are truly shocking and horrifying and depict the murder of his wife and two children, in front of Maruge, by British soldiers. The film depicts him as a lonely old man, living on his own.
Now whilst there is no doubt that there were atrocities during Mau Mau, on both sides, which make one truly ashamed, the horrors as depicted in this “true” story are a fiction.
When Maruge died in 2009 he had great-grandchildren, and 30 grandchildren.
The result of this dishonesty is that the film, whilst inspiring admiration for Maruge and bringing home the benefits of universal education, also engenders anger and horror, and provides far too simplistic a picture of the colonial legacy.
To make matters worse this film was part funded by the Lottery Fund and the BBC. For some reason the film company have disabled the option of adding comments to the You Tube trailer for the film.
You can find the trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-eBT7vnTLE
You can find a story from Nairobi television about the real Maruge here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NYWnq4p2OBY
Wikipedia has more information about Maruge, which you can find here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kimani_Maruge
Incidentally, part of the film was made on location at the first tea farm in Kenya, http://www.kiambethufarm.co.ke. Tea is now the biggest export earner for Kenya, greater even than tourism.