How to Spread It: Chris Mburu

2013-09-23 08:00

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Kenya’s Chris Mburu is an international human rights lawyer who works as a senior human rights adviser for the Geneva-based Human Rights Agency of the UN.

As a child, Mburu was the recipient of an act of philanthropy by Hilde Back, a holocaust survivor who paid for his education.

The astonishing story of Back and Mburu is captured in the award-winning 2010 film A Small Act, but it is Mburu’s “pay it forward” initiative that is causing a shift in Kenyan society.

Mburu founded the Hilde Back Education Fund, which funds the education of talented children from poor families, proving that one small act can indeed change the way many experience the world.

Mburu’s new campaign – education is a human right – is to get all children the free education they are entitled to.

As part of his job, Mburu helps governments and other public institutions to improve their capacities to comply with their international human rights obligations.

He has also done research on discrimination and intolerance, which could result in the commission of serious crimes. He has been an advocate of human rights for the last 20 years at home in Kenya, as well as while studying at Harvard Law School and through organisations such as Amnesty International, Global Rights and now the UN.

He is also on the Board of Judges of Harvard’s Gleitsman International Activist Award, an award that has been bestowed on Nelson Mandela and for which Desmond Tutu has also been a judge. His wish is that all children in Africa get free education.

Q: Would you say that the extraordinary story of how you came to be where you are today is an example of how an act that seems confined to one person can cause a shift in society?

A: Absolutely. This Swedish woman, Ms Hilde Back, helped me as a child back in the 1970s, but now I am fortunate enough to be able to help hundreds of other needy children through the foundation that I started in her name.

And these children are going out there to help others and change society.

So the small seed that Hilde Back planted has germinated and mushroomed into this big thing that is changing everyone it touches and is causing a major positive shift in our society.

Q: What would have been your fate without the intervention of a woman who was a stranger to you?

A: It’s hard to imagine, given what my family was going through at that time.

But my mother, though an uneducated market woman, was a very resourceful lady and she was determined to see us through school in spite of significant odds.

That is why I believe she would have found me some support elsewhere, though probably with great difficulty.

The support by Hilde Back was therefore nothing short of a miracle for my poor mother.

Q: What was the genesis of A Small Act, the film?

A: It came about after a woman named Jennifer Arnold, a film maker in Hollywood, heard from her friend – who turned out to be my cousin – that I had named a charitable foundation after a Swedish woman who had sponsored my education.

Jennifer immediately became interested in the story, and wanted to make a film out of it.

She had spent some time in Kenya as a student, which is how she had met my cousin, and she felt she wanted to return and do this film.

It was as simple as that. When she called me and said she wanted to do a film based on the story of Hilde Back and myself, I told her I did not believe the story was significant enough to have a whole film based on it, but she later proved me wrong.

The film went on to become an instant hit once it was released, premiering at America’s prestigious Sundance Film Festival, and scooping awards internationally before being nominated for an Emmy Award.

The film received rave reviews everywhere, and its screenings were attended by big personalities like Bill Gates, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, singer Harry Belafonte and others.

I was stunned by the public reaction to this simple film. I still am.

Q: What made you set out on the journey?

A: I wanted to do something small as a way to pay it forward, given what Hilde had done for me as a child.

After I graduated from Harvard, and, having seen how drastically different my life had turned out, the urge to start something in Hilde’s honour was irresistible.

But I had since lost touch with her, and I did not really want to start something in her name before consulting her first.

But I eventually did, and only found her after the organisation had already been established.

But my motivation was really to help other children who were in the same situation I was once in.

I felt that I had a duty to do this for someone else.

But I had no idea I would be able to do it on the scale I am able to do it today.

I guess I have the film to thank for that because after the film came out my foundation received overwhelming support, which enabled us to scale up and support many more deserving children in Kenya.

Q: How does the Hilde Back Foundation you started add to your life experience?

A: The foundation has changed my world outlook, it has made me embrace philanthropy more firmly than before.

Through the foundation I have met many interesting and inspiring people who have taught me how to help more people and how to encourage others to give.

I feel more empowered through these interactions, and I now see my life purpose more clearly than before.

Q: You were recently reappointed to the Board of Judges for Harvard’s Gleitsman International Activist Award.

This is an award that has been won by Nelson Mandela. Is it an inspiring experience to be on this selection committee?

A: I am humbled to be in this selection committee and I am doing my best to earn the trust that has been bestowed on me.

Nelson Mandela is my idol, like he is to many people, and the fact that he is a past winner of this award humbles me even more, to be more reflective on who else I accord this honour.

I am on this board of judges with interesting and eminent people who I respect tremendously and I cannot afford to let them down.

I should also point out that past members of the board of judges include even more eminent persons, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

So I take it absolutely seriously. It is an awesome responsibility.

Q: Apart from your own, what is one of your favourite stories about giving?

A: I am mainly touched by the philanthropic gestures of simple people like Hilde, and through my work I have now come to meet many people with interesting stories and experiences.

The one I have that touched me most recently is the story of this American woman named Heinke Bonnlander who, in the mid-1990s, met a street boy called Morris while she was working in Kigali, Rwanda, in the aftermath of the genocide.

She offered to pay for his education if he agreed to go to school.

Moses agreed, left the streets and received a serious education. Recently, Morris graduated from the university in Rwanda with a law degree and he now wants to be a human rights lawyer, defending the rights of vulnerable children in Rwanda. An absolute miracle.

Stories like these keep me going. We need more of them every day, everywhere.

Q: Who are some of the children you have helped and what are their stories?

A: We have stories of more miracles, amazing cases of transformation and rescue from the throes of poverty and hopelessness.

My favourite is of this girl who had abandoned school and had lost hope, gone back to the village and joined the vicious cycle of poverty.

She got married and had two children.

Then, when she heard about our scholarships, she said she was ready to go back to school, and she did.

Today she has graduated from our programme and we are now trying to get her an admission to a university abroad.

We deal with stories of hopelessness, but fortunately most are changed to stories of hope through our foundation.

Q: How do you think we foster a culture of giving in our society?

A: By finding a structured way of supporting those who choose to give.

Governments should make it easier for people to give by providing tax incentives and by making it easier for charitable organisations to operate.

We also have to debunk this myth that you have to be rich to give.

In fact, I am convinced that small acts of generosity, if multiplied the world over, could provide the missing link in our struggle to develop our countries, especially here in Africa.

We should not sit around waiting for one or two fabulously rich persons in our society to solve our problems.

It’s a lot better to have millions of small givers than a handful of millionaires giving to causes and trying to change our world.

We ourselves hold the key to societal transformation.

Q: Would you call yourself a philanthropist?

A: I am simply a person desirous of doing good to those in need.

Words and titles to me do not matter, it is our actions that count.

Q: What is your wish for Kenya and for the continent?

A: Recently, as the world marked 50 years since the famous I Have a Dream speech by Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, I posted a tweet in which I said I had a dream too, that all children of the world would enjoy their right to education.

I have consistently said that governments should not abandon some social responsibilities like providing free education to all their children.

Under ideal circumstances, social services like education should not be provided by charities or individual philanthropists.

Education should be the responsibility of our governments. Education is a right to which all children in any country should be entitled.

So my wish for Kenya and Africa is that all our children will soon get a free education, which is their fundamental human right.

» Follow Chris Mburu on Twitter @ChrisMburu and visit or

» This series is developed in partnership with the Southern Africa Trust.

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