Jennifer Arnold & Chris Mburu Discuss A Small Act

As a child, Chris Mburu looked headed for a hardscrabble life like other kids from impoverished Kenyan families too poor to afford to keep them in school. But then he became the beneficiary of sponsorship from a Swedish donor, Hilde Back, and his life changed.

The modest sum of around $15 Hilde donated each month, enabled Mburu to complete his primary and high school education. He went on to study at the University of Nairobi, and became a Fulbright Scholar at Harvard. Today, he works as a human rights investigator for the United Nations in Geneva.

He never forgot about the woman who'd helped him transcend his limited circumstances. “Even when I was growing up,” Mburu says, during a trip to London, “I was fascinated: Who's this lady? Why me and not the other kids I'm going to school with?” One Christmas, he became the only pupil in his class to have shoes, thanks to Hilde. “So everyone was talking about my Swedish benefactor. My white benefactor,” he laughs.  “When I graduated from Harvard I was thinking maybe I should make it a little project to find her, and eventually I wrote to the Swedish embassy in Nairobi, and the ambassador later wrote to me and said she had found her.”

Their story, and that of the fund that Mburu helped set up in Back's name in Kenya to sponsor bright but poor children through high school, is now the subject of American filmmaker Jennifer Arnold's thought-provoking documentary, A Small Act. She first heard about Mburu through his cousin, Jane, who also works for the UN, whom she'd met while studying as an undergraduate at Nairobi University. “I remembered she was sponsored, and a lot of my Kenyan friends had been sponsored, and so as the years went on I decided I wanted to sponsor a student. I called Jane and I said, 'Who's reputable? I want to make sure the money gets to a student.' She started telling me about Chris and Hilde, and about the fund that was getting started, and I was like, 'That will be a good movie',” says Arnold, snapping her fingers.

Although Mburu couldn't initially see why people would be interested in him, Arnold found his story appealing partly because it offered hope at a time when optimism was in short supply. When filming started in 2007, George W. Bush had won two elections, “quite scandalously,” she says, “and it didn't matter how many protests you went to about the Iraq war, it didn't matter who you voted for,” people like her felt powerless to make a difference. Mburu's story showed her that “as an individual you can change the world, or change your world, you don't have to be a Gandhi, you don't have to be a Mother Theresa. That was something that was really attractive.”

The connections between Hilde, who also appears in the film, and Mburu went beyond just benefactor and beneficiary. She, it transpires, was sent to Sweden to escape persecution as a Jew in Nazi Germany. Her parents were denied entry and perished in Thereseinstadt and Auschwitz. Was it “fate” or the work of some “connector” that brought the two together? Mburu wonders in the film. “I'm a spiritual person,” he tells me. Even so, he still finds the fact that he's "ended up being a human rights investigator focusing on genocide and crimes against humanity, while Hilde had been the product of a system that had committed genocide and crimes against humanity . . . a bit unsettling.”

Mburu's interest in human rights took root early in life. As a teenager he worked for a magazine that highlighted abuses committed by the Moi regime in Kenya the late eighties and nineties. “It was very vocal,” he says, “and as a result I got targeted and they actually confiscated my passport. My cousin was arrested in a crackdown and sentenced to three years for sedition, simply because he had wanted regime change.”

Education for him, he says in the film, is a matter of life and death, because ignorance and gullibility can be easily exploited by politicians for violent ends. As if to underline this message, an election taking place in Kenya while Arnold was making A Small Act descended into bloody chaos after sitting President Mwai Kibaki's victory was rejected by opposition leader Raila Odinga. The ensuing violence, which included the burning alive of some 30 men, women and children from the Kikuyu tribe, inside a church, took everyone by surprise, says Mburu. “We had come to the brink of ethnic confrontation many times before, and opinions would always say, 'Oh, it's just incitement from the politicians.' So in 2007 I thought it was just going to be that.”

Arnold hadn't covered the election because she didn't see it as part of the story and was going to ignore the violence because it appeared to be “election-based”. When it became clear that it was in fact ethnic, “the parallel could not be ignored between Chris's work and Hilde's history. And even though you can't really compare what happened in Germany to what happened in Kenya, the idea that you can manipulate a desperate and under-educated population based on any differences – religious, gender, ethnicity – for personal political gain, that was something Chris had already talked about and it really crystallised the stakes of the movie,” she says.

Mburu is doing his best to counter ignorance by offering some kids who score highly enough in the national KCPE exam funding to attend high school, which, unlike primary school in Kenya, is not free. The film focuses on three children at a particular primary school as they prepare for the exam, revealing the difference that success would make not only to them as individuals but also to their families.

The impact of A Small Act on Mburu's work has already been immense. After its screening at Sundance in January, they raised $90,000 in 10 days for the Hilde Back Education Fund, which has now grown from a village-based fund to a national one. “With this money we are beginning to establish a strong organisation that can then do the outreach,” says Mburu, “because we all want these kids to have strong role models from Kenya. We want them to see me and Jane and the others and think, 'I want to be like that.' That's the way you develop a country.”

Ultimately, the film's message is a simple one, says Arnold: “If you do good in the world it will exponentially grow, and if you do evil that will also exponentially grow.”

 Originally published in The Scotsman,  9 April 2011

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