A SMALL ACT – a documentary by Jennifer Arnold
Some tragic events have surprising outcomes. During the Second World War, a German Jewish woman called Hilde Back lost both parents and was saved by someone who took her to Sweden where she was eventually granted citizenship. Survivors sometimes experience feelings of guilt and trauma throughout their lives; Hilde Back was different. If she did have those emotions, she turned them to a good cause. Feeling grateful to be alive and to have been saved, her thanks was to regularly put $15 in an envelope and send it to one Chris Mburu who lived in a village in the Rift Valley. Little did she know how far her small act of kindness would go.
The film of this story has recent been released by HBO and illustrates the way a documentary can initiate world -wide change; I happened to catch it on television in Australia and was heartened to see something so inspiring and positive about Africa amidst all the usual rubbish about gangsters and drug addicts. Jennifer Arnold, the film’s director studied at the University of Nairobi with Chris Mburu’s cousin which is how she came across the story of Hilde Back and her part in his life. After finishing school, he graduated from Harvard Law School and became a leading light at UNESCO. What goes around comes around. He decided that he would pay back the “small gift” which had changed his life, and together with Hilde Back set up a fund which would assist poor and needy children to go to school. Now tiny and in her eighties, she is invited to Kenya and made a Kikuyu elder. All dressed up in her shuka, she joins in the dancing with elation. But her greatest affection is for Chris, a substitute for the children she did not have. If only all those women cast off as “barren” would see other needy children as worthy of care in this way!
The film was shot at an awkward moment: Chris has set up the scholarship fund and we follow several children who are hoping to qualify. But there is stiff competition, of course. The children are told that the cut-off point for success will be 380 marks. There is great tension and anxiety as they go about studying under extremely difficult circumstances. There is precious little light to pore over books at night. The schoolrooms are bare and uninviting especially during the rainy season when everything is covered in mud. Books are in short supply. A harshness pervades the atmosphere: children who lack the money to go to secondary school are teased and laughed at. Puzzled mothers in their headscarves struggle to understand. The headmaster is blunt. Chris, who narrates much of the film, has to be realistic. “We can’t help everyone who needs it,” he says.
It is around January 2008. In the middle of all the preparations for the scholarship award, the post-election violence breaks out all around them. In addition to their fears for their future education, these children are worried about just staying alive. But Kimani, Ruth and Caroline succeed after the panel of judges has lowered the cut-off point. They whisper amongst themselves: is this the right thing to do? Why have the children performed so poorly? Should they give special consideration to the girls who have a harder time in school? Why indeed. Education can’t take place in a vacuum: it needs the support of the state, the parents and the community at large. Forgive me if I repeat the truism that school is a microcosm of society.
It premieres in Toronto where it is one of the favourites and goes on to win awards at the Sundance and many other festivals. Bill Gates and George Soros attend a performance and decide to chip in and assist the foundation. In April of this year, Arnold returns to premiere the film in the village where it is shot. There is great jubilation and joy.
Three children who are successful have been followed on the website: Kimani now attends a private school owned by a board member of the foundation and plans to become a neuro-surgeon. Ruth is in one of the top secondary schools in Kenya and wishes to be a lawyer whilst Caroline is in her third year and wants to combine modelling with lecturing at the university. But what of those left behind? Jennifer Arnold needs to come back and make a film about them. It is hard to watch the bitter tears of those who have not made the grade and are destined to have lives of drudgery and penury. But there is no room for self-pity here: one of the movie’s best qualities is to show how these people don’t complain, but just get on with it. After all, as a friend of mine pointed out when I first became enraged in Africa, you have to have someone to complain to! Their desire is to better themselves and to please their parents so that they can build decent houses and make a contribution to society.
Why in the 21st century should such children be at the mercy of charity? Why should there be enough money to pay bloated politicians and not a penny for these children many of whom might, given the chance, become world leaders like Chris Mburu who works to prevent genocide? While private funds help a lucky few, the powers-that-be can sit back and watch while the huge majority goes to waste.