The First Grader. A cinematic review of the aftermath of the Mau Mau.

This is a college assignment I had in 2016. I usually remove all my interaction conversations from other students because only my side is being recorded. However, with the story of The First Grader, I had really strong opinions about the question as to whether Maruge was justified in taking a spot from a child to attend school. There is some added information that I did not want to try and incorporate into my original essay. I apologize that the full content is not included.

The First Grader was a heart-warming and gut-wrenching tale about 84-year-old Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge, a veteran of the bloody Mau Mau revolution. From the BBC:

“The number killed in the uprising is a subject of much controversy. Officially the number of Mau Mau and other rebels killed was 11,000, including 1,090 convicts hanged by the British administration. Just 32 white settlers were killed in the eight years of emergency. The Kenya Human Rights Commission has said 90,000 Kenyans were executed, tortured or maimed during the crackdown, and 160,000 were detained in appalling conditions” (BBC).

Why do so many Kenyans challenge this Mau Mau freedom fighter’s quest for an education?

The challenge that most of the local’s had against Maruge’s ambition for education was simple, availability. On the registration day for classes, it is stated that they had over 200 applicants for the school, and only 50 spaces available. Furthermore, the actual classroom had much less capacity, forcing students to cram together and some sat on the floor. The complaint was legitimate. Another observation is that due to Maruge’s bad eyesight, he is unable to sit in the back of the class, so he sits in the front, providing quite a large obstruction for the children behind him in regards to viewing the chalkboard.

What lessons does Maruge teach Jane? What does he teach the children? Why does he want to learn to read and write so badly?

Maruge teaches Jane that you do not have to fight in a war, to make a difference. Her constant refusal to accept the demands of her superiors to remove Maruge, eventually lead to her being transferred. This was after receiving numerous threats of harm, calls to her husband saying that Jane is cheating on him and the mob attack on the school. I also think Maruge taught Jane how much he values her, despite the feelings and treatment towards women. Maruge traded his goat, a prized possession, to go into the city to plead on Jane’s behalf to have her returned to the school.

The mob attack moves right into teaching the children that you should always stand up for what you believe in, while the children are not aware of the Mau Mau campaign to the extent that the adults are, they still see that this single man is willing to go against dozens of younger, stronger men. Maruge takes a special interest in helping Kamel learn how to write his number 5, even after Kamel displays rude behavior towards him.

Maruge wants to learn how to read so that he can read a letter, that he had been holding onto. He wanted the satisfaction of reading and understanding the letter for himself. Maruge gives a great effort to learn, attending additional help classes with Jane and studying on his own time. Eventually, the letter proves to be too difficult for him to read, and he presents it to Jane, with the wish to be read to him. The letter states that Maruge is entitled to compensation for the harsh treatment he suffered during the Mau Mau campaign and his eight years in captivity. The letter comes as a surprise to Maruge, but it does not hold much power, given all that he lost during the campaign, having no family to return home to.

Work Cited.

BBC. Mau Mau Uprising: Bloody History of the Kenya Conflict. BBC Online. 7 April 2011. Web. 26 July 2016.

The First Grader. Dir. Justin Chadwick. BBC Films, UK Film Council. 2010. Web.

Response 1


I completely agree with the glaring fact that Maruge being in the classroom was a negative thing for the children. As you mentioned, the lack of space was very apparent, on registration day they stated there were 50 seats available, and 200 applicants. I stated in my own initial post that the classroom was already too small to handle the number of children in the building, with some sitting on the floor. Maruge essentially bullied his way in, sad as the facts surrounding his desire to read are. I wonder why the adult school did not remove those students who did not wish to participate in the program? Maruge demonstrated his determination to achieve his goal, yet he gives up on the first day at the adult program.

The lessons we all learned were good ones, and the film does shine a light on a horrible atrocity conducted by the British. However, I will say as someone with PTSD, it was horrific to watch and would have preferred to have not seen it.

Response 2


While I did have first hand experience witnessing third-world countries and their education systems, I was not fully aware of Kenya specifically, so I did some research. I have provided the link to a study below that was conducted in 2006. From the abstract, roughly 38% of the adult population is illiterate. The report recommended Kenya to hire an additional 25,000 educators, which I assume is at the adult level only, and to bring their wages to meet the average in the country. Additionally, “other barriers to effective participation in adult literacy programmes included: lack of relevant teaching and learning materials; costs of learning materials; and lack of centres within reach of most adults; curricula that are not relevant to learners’ needs” (UNESCO).

We compare that with the United States, according to the Department of Education study conducted in 2015, that has an 14% illiteracy rate in adults, despite the free education (Huffington).

The situation for children in Kenya is rather bleak. From a study conducted by UNICEF in 2006, “ … one Kenyan child in three is involved in underage prostitution. It is a drastic situation caused by incredibly poor living conditions, with around 50% of the population below the poverty line” (Buzuev).

Kenya is one of the more prosperous countries in Africa. Corruption is a rampant problem, both from the government and from NGO’s that take advantage of situations they are supposed to be addressing. Things have slowly been improving, but there is still a long way to go for the residents of this country.

Work Cited.

Buzuev, Vitaly. SOS: Sold Out Slaves. Kenya’s growing child prostitution crisis. RT News. 12 February 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.

Huffington Post.  The U.S Illiteracy Rate Has Not Changed in Ten Years. Huffington Post. 12 December 2014. Web. 27 July 2016.

UNESCO. Kenya Adult National Literacy Survey. Eldis. 2007 Web. 27 July 2016.

Response 3


I was the one who said Maruge bullied his way into the school, and I do stand by my thoughts on that. I will list out all my reasons, all of these are based upon the movie, not sure how accurate it compares to the book or real life.

  1. Maruge was told that there were 150 other children who did not get a seat in the school.
  2. He was told repeatedly that the class is for children, that he has no place there and they have an adult program that he can attend.
  3. Maruge has some serious PTSD, and it comes to the point that he is attacking children over flashbacks, this is a seriously dangerous position to put the children in.
  4. The outrage he was causing lead to the school being attacked, any of the children could have been hurt during the attack.
  5. Maruge is aware of the town’s opinion of him going to the school, and even after the attack, he just states that “Everything will be okay.” He does not know that, for all he is aware of, they could come back with a larger group, or not be scared off by the old man with a stick.
  6. Returning to the adult program, why would Maruge be so persistent to go the children’s school, yet give up on the first day at the adult program?
  7. Maruge has bad eyesight, so he had to sit in the front of the class, being so much larger than the children, how could the children behind him possibly see the chalkboard?
  8. We see some children are sitting on the floor because the classroom was obviously not designed for 50 children. I would say the teachers already made a lot of exceptions to get as many children in as possible. Then here comes Maruge, taking up even more valuable real estate.
  9. Placing Maruge in a teaching assistant position is ludacris. As far as the first grade is concerned, he knows no more than the children. I believe it was Kamal’s father who was outraged over the fact that he was being taught by Maruge, and he is exactly right.

Addressing your flip side, I do not think we can compare Maruge’s struggles to those of our own. You are correct even most of the US soldiers, ever experienced the loss of family like Maruge did. Remember, Maruge and the Mau Mau fought for freedom, and they did win it from Britain. We also know nothing about what contributions Maruge made to the fight. The Mau Mau Revolution was very bloody, and I am not very knowledgeable in it, but we know that in war, people do horrible things.

You are correct that we should fight for what we believe is right. I am personally in a lawsuit against the Army and KBR for illegal operation of burn pits that has lead me to develope 6 different illnesses that I never had before, and some that are rather rare. My life has been irreversibly damaged and my life span shortened because of my involvement in the wars. I am dependent on medication that, lacking, I would die. I have also struggled for years about the education system and the poor health care provided to us by the VA. I even had a VA nurse tell me I should “Shut the f**k up,” when I kept asking for care for my PTSD. My story is in no way unique, I am using it to support my case that I do agree with you.

In closing, Maruge had an adult program that he could have put his effort towards. Instead, he bullied his way into the children’s program, placing them at a least at a disadvantage, at worst in a dangerous position.