This documentary illustrates the profound effect of a Swedish woman’s decision to finance a poor Kenyan boy’s education, deftly weaving together their fascinating life stories with the compelling story of three bright Kenyan students whose families cannot afford to pay for their secondary school education.
“How do you explain it? Some stranger steps into your life and totally changes it,” says Chris Mburu, a Kenyan human rights lawyer featured in A Small Act. The documentary weaves together Mburu’s personal story with that of Hilde Back, a Swedish woman who participated in a program to sponsor a Kenyan child’s education. Chris Mburu was that child.
A heavyset man with deep-set eyes, Mburu passionately describes his experience of being the top student in his district in Central Kenya, but not always being able to attend school because his family could not afford the fees. His life changed when Back, a preschool teacher, began financing his education through a Swedish foundation, donating roughly eleven Euros a month for several years. With her support, Mburu graduated from secondary school, eventually earning degrees from the University of Nairobi and Harvard Law School. He now works for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.
Unbeknownst to Mburu, his benefactor was a German Jewish refugee who entered Sweden in 1940 as a teenager. Her parents died in concentration camps. Hilde Back didn’t know that the student she once sponsored now worked as a human rights officer investigating genocide and crimes against humanity.
Inspired by Back’s act of kindness, Mburu decided to launch a charity to help bright young Kenyan students whose families were too poor to send them to secondary school. Things hadn’t changed very much since he was in primary school in the 1970s and he wanted to give deserving students the kind of opportunity he had once had. Though he had never met his benefactor, he named it the Hilde Back Education Fund in her honor.
A Small Act features the top three students in Mburu’s old school district as they compete for the fund’s scholarships. They desperately yearn to continue with their schooling; winning a scholarship is their only hope. “I can’t even explain how much knowledge I want,” says Ruth, who studies at night by lamplight.
“You feel awful knowing that your parents can’t pay for your education,” says Caroline, whose eyes fill with tears as she speaks, “but you hope that if you study hard, you’ll get money to continue your studies.” And Kimani, a young boy with old eyes says: “My family, my grandparents, they know education is the only thing that can change someone’s life.” To win a scholarship, the students need to score well on Kenya’s national exam.
The documentary gracefully ties all these stories together, fluidly cutting from Kenya to Sweden, in a remarkably compelling narrative that also includes Mburu finally meeting his benefactor and honoring her in a special celebration in Kenya. The film also captures incredible moments of tension as the young students anxiously wait to discover their examination scores that will determine their scholarship eligibility – and their futures. These intimate scenes are shot with such sensitivity and care that at times the students appear to have forgotten that the camera was even there.
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