A Small Act

A Kenyan boy's life is dramatically changed when his education is sponsored by a Swedish stranger. Years later, Chris Mburu founds his own scholarship program to replicate the kindness he once received. But, a wave of violence tears through Kenya and threatens the potential impact of Chris' fund.

This project presents two stories, which interweave to create a whole. These stories are:

When Hilde Back sponsored a young, impoverished Kenyan student, she thought nothing of it. She paid roughly $15 dollars per term to keep Chris Mburu in primary school. She certainly never expected to hear from him, but many years later, she does.

In the 1970s, Chris was the top student in his school district, but his family couldn’t afford school fees. Without assistance, Chris would have most likely grown up to pick coffee. Over the years, he’s never forgotten his “angel” Hilde, a total stranger who changed his life. Her small contribution paid off—it kept Chris on a path that went all the way to Harvard Law School. Now, he’s a respected human rights lawyer working for the United Nations, dedicating his life to fighting genocide and crimes against humanity.

Chris believes education is the key to his nation’s development. Tired of seeing other young Kenyans’ lives go to waste, Chris decides to replicate his sponsor’s generosity and starts a scholarship foundation of his own. He names the program for his sponsor (The Hilde Back Education Fund) and meets her for the first time at the fund’s dedication ceremony. It is here that he learns Hilde is not Swedish, but a German Jew who escaped the Holocaust. She, in turn, never knew Chris grew up to fight genocide.

The young students in Chris’ village exemplify both Chris’ past and Kenya’s future. Like Chris before them, these kids can’t afford school. Kimani, Ruth and Caroline are the top three students in Mukubu school’s eighth grade class. Secondary school costs roughly $600 (USD) per year. The kids and their family members earn approximately $1.50 (USD) per day, picking coffee. Their only hope is Chris’ scholarship. To qualify, they need a minimum score of 380 on their KCPE Exam, the exit exam for primary education.
As Chris prepares to accept applications, the students fervently throw themselves into their studies. They see two options for their futures. They could grow up to be like Chris, a success story giving back to his community, or they’ll live the lives of their parents, who are extremely intelligent but stuck in a cycle of poverty. When exam results are announced, none of the kids achieve 380. Their futures seem doomed. Chris is shocked when he hears only one student from the area’s public schools have qualified. Kenya’s future is looking uncertain. Then, on December 30th, during Kenya’s Presidential election, things get much worse.
In the midst of 2008’s scholarship selections, Kenya unexpectedly plunges into ethnic-based, electoral violence. After working on conflicts in neighboring countries, Chris knows that ignorance fuels ethnic hatred. Education has never been more important. Chris’ fund has money to sponsor ten new beneficiaries, but only one has qualified. Chris must now decide what to do.
Ultimately, he decides to bend the requirements for his fund, putting Kimani, Ruth and Caroline back in the running. Kimani wins a scholarship; Ruth and Caroline do not. Chris hopes to expand the fund to take more children next year. Though his program is small, he hopes it will have an impact. Just as Hilde empowered him to make a difference in the world, he wants his new beneficiaries to grow up and do the same. He believes each of us can be part of a bigger cycle.

The film as a whole provides a riveting, character-based story that inspires audiences to do their own “small acts.” The project is also designed to challenge viewers on multiple levels. It uses narrative to explore the role of education in development, poverty and conflict. It also presents a rarely seen, empowered African Middle Class. It promotes global cooperation in small, local initiatives, like donating to a child’s education, but makes a distinction between charity and partnership. With opportunity, we are all equal, and we all can make a difference.


Completed 2009

  • Sundance 2010

Production team