Director Justin Chadwick on his pre-Mandela excursion into Africa, The First Grader

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 Kenyan independence.

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.

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.

He 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 cut.

"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."

Their first 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.

Unlike 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.

"This 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."

Some of 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."

Maruge 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 film]."
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?"

Even in 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."

The 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, terrible conditions."

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 recognition.

"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 lessons.

"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 

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