by Father Mark Goldasich
I’m sure that I looked like an idiot, but I couldn’t help myself.
When the performance was over, I rose to my feet and, with teary eyes, applauded for about a minute. Now, that wouldn’t have been so unusual had I been watching something at Starlight Theatre. But I was doing the standing ovation after watching a movie . . . alone . . . in my living room.
The movie had been in my Netflix instant play queue for several months. I’m sure that I was attracted to it because was about Kenya, and the main character was from the Kikuyu tribe. I’d worked with the Kikuyu for several months back in 1980 when I was serving as a deacon in East Africa.
In any event, I watched the movie the other night and found it both heartwarming and heart-wrenching. The film, “The First Grader,” was released in 2010 and tells the true story of Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge. After hearing a radio announcement that the Kenyan government is offering free primary education to all, he decides to take advantage of it. Not much of a story, right? Until you hear that Maruge is 84 years old and an ex-Mau Mau, one of the freedom fighters for Kenyan independence from the British from 1953-60.
I don’t want to give away any plot secrets, but officials at the already crowded school are none too happy to see Maruge. They tell him that it’s just for children; he replies that the government said all could get a free primary education. They tell him that he needs a tablet and pencil for admission; the next day, he shows up with both. After being turned away a third time because he doesn’t have a school uniform, he goes home, cuts off part of his pants to turn them into shorts, and returns.
Inspired by his creativity and determination, “Teacher Jane” relents and allows Maruge into her classroom. If you think that this is the sweet end to the story, you would be sadly mistaken. Maruge is ridiculed by his peers, despised by parents (who resent that he’s taking up space that another child could have in the school), and tormented by flashbacks of the cruelties he suffered as a freedom fighter. Mix in some heartless and clueless bureaucrats who besiege Teacher Jane on every front and you’ve got some riveting drama.
Sadly, although this is a wonderful film, it should not be viewed by children. The flashback scenes — though relatively few in number — are too intense and harrowing. They feature torture and brutality that would be inappropriate and frightening for children to watch.
Maruge is a sympathetic figure, especially as the movie details how much it has cost him to fight for Kenyan independence. Watching his exuberant joy, though, as he becomes literate — and his positive influence on the kids (and Teacher Jane) — makes you want to see all things work out for this senior-citizen first-grader.
I couldn’t hope to highlight here all of the lessons found in this film. One, though, deserves special mention. The movie teaches that no one is ever “too old” to learn. Maruge brings wisdom and humor to the children, determination to his studies, and creativity to dealing with the obstacles in life. Incidentally, he is a Guinness World Record holder for being the oldest person to start primary school. Even more impressive, before his death in 2009, Maruge addressed the United Nations on the importance of education — for the present and the future.
Toward the end of the film, he tells Teacher Jane that he wants to become a veterinarian. Teacher Jane laughs and says, “A vet? Maruge, you’ll be almost 100 years old.”
To this, he replies, “I will never stop learning until I have soil in my ears.”
May the same be said of each of us.
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