A former Mau Mau fights for his education in The First Grader, with Mandela star Naomie Harris
The Scotsman, June 21, 2011
The world's oldest primary pupil is the focus for a new film touching on colonial crimes
In April, damning new light was shed on one of the
bloodiest episodes in British colonial history. That month four elderly
Kenyans, who are claiming compensation from the UK Government for their
mistreatment during the Mau Mau uprising 50 years ago, forced the
release of undisclosed documents revealing how we abused, tortured and
murdered thousands of detainees in a bid to crush the movement for
As the Mau Mau veterans
await a High Court ruling, a new film, The First Grader, directed by
Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl), is revisiting the rebellion as
part of the true story of Kimani Nganga Maruge.
who died in August 2009, made news when he took the Kenyan government's
2003 promise of free primary education for all at face value and, at
age 84, demanded a place at his village school in western Kenya.
got one, thanks to its sympathetic principal, Jane Obinchu (played by
Naomie Harris in the film), but not everyone was happy. While some
viewed Maruge as an inspirational figure – he would later give an
address to the UN on the importance of education – others bitterly
complained that at a time when classes were heavily oversubscribed an
old man had deprived a child of a place. Some even claimed that Marugem a
former Mau Mau fighter, and Obinchu were pocketing donations on the
back of international interest in his story (they weren't) and demanded a
"People attacked Jane's house, they
abused her," says Chadwick. "She herself said she went out on a real
limb… and the consequences of that were great. She lost her job. Her
husband lost work."
Nothing, however, could
crush Maruge's spirit or his desire to learn. And when Chadwick flew to
Kenya to meet him in March 2009, after reading screenwriter Ann
Peacock's loosely structured take on the story, he found a man who was
still full of life, despite being in a Nairobi hospice for displaced
persons, with cancer. "He was 89, he was very sick, but he had amazing
energy," Chadwick recalls. "I think he responded (to me] because I went
in with two guys that were Kikuyu, which is the same tribe as him. So
immediately he wanted to talk."
encounter convinced Chadwick that they had to make the film in Kenya,
and not in the more film-friendly South Africa, as the producers were
planning. "I just phoned the BBC that night and said, 'I've got to stay.
Please let me stay.'" Persuaded, no doubt, by his passion, they agreed.
Chadwick's grandfather, who had been tight-lipped about experiences in
the Second World War ("He disappeared on the first day of war and came
back six years later, and never, ever, talked about what he'd been
through to any of us"), Maruge was eager to discuss his past.
is partly why I was drawn to this," he says. "Because here was a man
who was in his eighties, that wanted to tell his story, that wanted to
understand what happened to him."
what happened to him is revealed in the film as brief but powerful
flashbacks that come directly from Maruge's testimony. He had lost his
wife and children, and been "incarcerated for eight years, and tortured
every single day for those eight years", as the British tried,
unsuccessfully, says Chadwick, to extract the blood oath that he had
made to the land as a Mau Mau. "They would not utter a word of that to
their wives, to their children, anybody. And even at 89, he wouldn't
utter a word or phrase from that oath."
showed him the evidence of what he'd endured. "He had no toes, they
cracked his skull, he had scars on his back. He personally showed those
things to me. When you have a man sitting there, holding on to you, and
telling you these stories, I felt a responsibility to do them (in the
He says he isn't blind to the
horrific violence perpetrated by the Mau Mau, against whites and their
own people, but asks: "Who knew that 1.2 million Kikuyu had been
incarcerated in concentration camps?"
Africa, the team of young Kenyans Chadwick worked with were largely
ignorant of what had taken place. When Jomo Kenyatta became Kenya's
first premier in 1963, Chadwick explains, he had said: "'We forget the
past, we move on' – and a lot of Kenyans had done that. What happened
was that (his team] started – over the weeks that I was going in to see
Maruge, going in to the school that I selected (to film in] – going back
to their parents, to their grandparents, and opening up these
conversations about these very upsetting times. It helped them
understand their grandparents. It helped the young understand the old."
film talks about the danger of not learning from the past, which seems
to be something the British signally failed to do, because less than a
decade after the end of the Second World War, we had built a network of
detention camps across Kenya.
"How could we
do that?" asks Chadwick. "There is evidence, with the Mau Mau they
brought over (for the court case], that concentration camps happened all
over Africa, where they rounded up people and put them in terrible,
Although Maruge was not
directly involved in the current claim for compensation, he knew about
it, says Chadwick, and "would have been a part of the movement for
that". He was also aware that Barbara Castle had called for Britain to
acknowledge its past in the 1970s, but that it had just "been swept
under the carpet by everybody". All Maruge wanted, he says, was
"He'd been an ordinary person, a
farmer, who'd seen people systematically pulled from their villages in
this kind of frenzied obsession with naming Mau Mau, and he just could
not take it any more. I think that made him go off into the bush and
become Mau Mau. He just wanted acknowledgement for what had happened and
that he was a part of it."
The idea of
understanding the past in order to better understand the future, and the
role that education plays in, hopefully, making each generation better
than the last, runs through The First Grader. Maruge knew education was
empowering, and he wanted to learn to read, in English, to be able to
understand what politicians said, and to be able to read the Bible,
because, says Chadwick, "he didn't trust the preachers". Murage was
determined to carry on learning until he had "soil in my ears", and was
as good as his word. Even in the hospice he never stopped taking
"We'd finish a conversation and he'd
go, 'Right, where's my teacher? Where is she? You'll have to hold on,
I'm having my lesson,'" Chadwick laughs. "So there was this great thirst
for education. He was an amazing man."
Copyright Stephen Applebaum, 2013