In the Name of

Posted in: history,Reviews by bill-o on September 07, 2010

I recently had the chance (and the great joy) to view the HBO documentary film “A Small Act”. And just to make sure that I give credit to the people responsible for this outstanding film: It is a Harambee Media Production, in association with Considered Entertainment and Cherry Sky Films, and it was directed by Jennifer Arnold.

The documentary tells the story of Chris Mburu, a young student from a poor, rural part of Kenya who was given the scholarship money that he needs to attend secondary school by a teacher in faraway Sweden, Hilde Back. Chris was the top student in his primary school class but lacked the money to continue his education. Ms. Backe’s donation allowed Chris to attend and complete his secondary school education. From there, Mr. Mburu was able to attend the University of Nairobi for free, and he then able to attend and graduate from Harvard Law on a Fulbright scholarship. After graduation from Harvard, Chris Mburu eventually found employment with the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, where he specializes as a human rights advocate for refugees and for those who have been the victims of genocide and human rights abuses.

Mr. Mburu had never met in person and had lost track of each other sometime after Mr. Mburu’s graduation from secondary school. Grateful for Ms. Back’s financial support at a key point in his life and eager to give back to his homeland, Mr. Mburu started the Hilde Back Education Fund (HBEF) in the name of his former sponsor. This time, instead of receiving the financial assistance of foreigners for scholarships for students to attend secondary school, the HBEF would be for Kenyans to help poor and bright Kenyan students complete their secondary school educations.

Yet something was missing: Hilde Back herself, the namesake of the scholarship program. Mr. Mburu appealed to the Swedish Embassy in Nairobi for help in finding Ms. Back. One thing led to another and Ms. Back, now retired and in her 80s, was located in her apartment in Sweden. She then graciously accepted an invitation to visit Kenya to see the work of the scholarship that shares her name. On arrival, Ms. Back was treated with great honor and made an elder in the Kikuyu tribe.

This amazing story turns out to have an even more surprising history. We learn in the film that Ms. Back is a Holocaust survivor who had arrived in Sweden as a young child during World War II without her parents, who later perished in the concentration camps. Ms. Back comes to learn that the child that she had sponsored years ago had grown up to become a defender of human rights, and Mr. Mburu comes to know that his benefactor was a survivor of genocide.

We see in this film how a woman in the faraway country had become the parent of a great work for sponsoring young students, even though she, at first, knew nothing about it. Yet she had raised up a young person who then grew up to do the same thing for other younger ones coming up behind him. And he had done so in the same spirit of generosity as Ms. Back had done years earlier. This is why the newer scholarship program of Kenyans sponsoring other Kenyans is rightfully named after a refugee to Sweden: Because she had had the foresight to, if you will, “breathe life” into a young Kenyan, who would grow up and later breathe that same life into others in the same way.

I really can’t recommend this film highly enough. Please see it if you can.

An Evening with Greg Mortenson

Posted in: Current Events by bill-o on December 05, 2009

Shadows and Symbols had the privilege of seeing Greg Mortenson, co-author of the bestselling book Three Cups of Tea, and author of Stones into Schools, speak in Washington, D.C., USA, on December 3, 2009. Mr. Mortenson, who is the founder and leader of the Central Asian Institute (CAI), has been instrumental in building dozens of schools in remote areas of Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. These secular schools especially promote education for girls in very poor rural areas where educational opportunities are usually non-existent. For his humanitarian efforts, Greg Mortenson is the recipient of the Star of Pakistan and has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Mr. Mortenson was introduced by New York Times reporter Tom Friedman. Mr. Friedman’s gracious introduction described how he had recently flown by military helicopter into a remote area of Afghanistan with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) of the U.S. military, Admiral Michael Mullen, in order to be present at the dedication of one of CAI’s new schools. Tom Friedman then described how one of the most powerful men in the world, Adm. Mullen, proceeded to distribute the notebooks that the admiral’s wife and other military wives had given to him for each of the girls on their first day of school.

Greg Mortenson, who is suffering from a weakening heart virus which he had contracted while on his latest trip to Afghanistan, then took to the podium and began to describe his very unique life-story, most of which is chronicled in Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools.¬†The presentation included a short video clip of Mr. Mortenson’s daughter interviewing retired NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw at his Montana ranch. Mr. Brokaw is now somewhat famously known as the only well-known celebrity to send any support money to Greg Mortenson when he was beginning his work in Pakistan back in the mid-90s. (Mr. Mortenson did confess during his talk that his daughter had recently figured out that Mr. Brokaw’s $100 check did not cover the postage cost for her father’s earliest efforts to raise money.)

After the video interview, Mr. Mortenson then explained the societal situation in Afghanistan, and how he works to address that. With a video slide presentation produced by his son shown on a screen behind him, Mr. Mortenson described how various outside forces have broken down traditional relationships between the elders, the spiritual leaders, and the youth in Afghanistan. Rather than working to destroy traditional relationships, Mr. Mortenson specifically seeks to build relationships with local village leaders and show respect and deference towards them.

Mr. Mortenson did not only highlight his own work during his time with us. He specifically praised other charities, particularly ones run by children or young adults. He clearly likes charities like his own that are organic, independent of outside influences, and decentralized in their approach to fundraising and care.

Education is most definitely Greg Mortenson’s focus, and the education of girls is his primary concern. He mentioned an African proverb that says that if you educate a boy, you educate an individual. If you educate a girl, you educate a community. Mr. Mortenson stated how he believes that education is the only long-term answer to terrorism and poverty in the world. It is, in his view, more important than other humanitarian projects in the developing world such as paving roads. He even simplified his efforts towards education in one simple fundraising pitch: one penny buys one pencil.

Mr. Mortenson may be the best combination of gentleness and determination that you will ever meet. His style of speaking was definitely unpolished and even a bit folksy. Yet he also showed the fierce determination that he needs in his work in the one part of the presentation where he specifically addressed his critics: People who dislike his friendship with high-ranking members of the U.S. military. (Mr. Mortenson’s presentation included a three-point summary of the main points of Three Cups of Tea by USCENTCOM commander¬†General David Petraeus.) Yet no matter how you view his relationship with the military, it seems as though Mr. Mortenson is having a lot more influence on them than they may be having with him.

Greg Mortenson’s did not mention his own political views or spiritual beliefs during his presentation. Are they the quiet, motivating force behind his extraordinary charitable acts? That will remain a mystery for the time being. Yet as Mr. Mortenson said during his presentation in the U.S. national capital city on December 3, if anyone can rightly claim that God is own their side, then they need to display acts of kindness and love towards orphans and widows and others in need. And this is a viewpoint that is very hard for anyone to argue with.