It could have been a scene from my own visit to in Kenya in 2011 – the dusty roads, the matatus (taxi vans) with hawkers hanging out of the windows, children singing and dancing with glee – but actually, it was just the setting of the beautiful, uplifting film, The First Grader.
The movie, from 2011, is based on the true story of Kimani Maruge, an 84-year old man who hears in 2003 that the Kenyan government is now offering “free primary education for all” and decides to take them up on the offer!
See, Maruge has an important letter from the Office of the President and he wants to learn to read so that he can read it himself. And he overcomes many challenges from the community and haunting memories to keep studying and learning.
Throughout the film we see flashbacks to a traumatic past when Maruge was held in the British Detention Camps along with other members of the Mau Mau movement, who fought against the British in 1952-60. (This is a complicated history! For more about the Mau Mau Uprisings, read the Wikipedia page.)
The movie, filmed in Kenya with local school children acting as Maruge’s classmates, shows so many typical scenes from the country.
You see the use of cell phones (which are very common throughout Kenya, and are now helping people transfer cash electronically; read more HERE), and the ubiquitous chickens, goats, and dogs running around people’s houses. There’s also the mandatory reference to Obama, the Kenyan who moved into the White House.
We also see a wide variety of homes, from huts with inside cooking fires and no electricity, to brick houses with tin roofs and barred windows, to middle-class apartments in Nairobi.
The First Grader shows the teacher Jane being frustrated with lack of desks. But it also shows her being able to achieve teaching with few materials and in a wooden building. Sometimes it’s not the infrastructure that matters most with schools, it’s the teachers. Jane is engaged, passionate, loves the children, and gives generously.
Sometimes, with the enthusiasm for building schools in Kenya, we forget the importance and centrality of teacher training, pay, and good working conditions.
Accessing “Free” Education
For me, the movie was an important reminder of the value placed on education in Kenya and the barriers to even access the “free” primary education. Students must buy uniforms and shoes and bring pencils and other supplies. They may either have to walk long distances or pay for a bus or bike ride to school.
So, it’s understandable that many families who receive Spirit in Action Small Business Fund grants to start a business, use their first profits to send children back to school.
In Kenya, we visited Rose Ayabei, who received a SIA Small Business Fund $150 grant in 2009 to start a poultry business. In 2011 she had over 60 chickens! She told us that she dedicated to keeping the business working so that she can pay for her children to continue attending school. The boys walk 2km on muddy roads to attend school.
Maruge knew the importance of education, and overcame prejudice and ignorance, and his past struggles, to patiently learn to read and share that importance of learning with the other children in the class. Let’s help more families send their children – boys and girls – to school, making a better future for Kenya.