When we think of Africa, many of us imagine slums, genocide, refugees or victims of HIV. There are, of course, major crises on the continent and many important films about the area’s troubles. But in reality, there is also huge potential, which is not represented in the media. There is a tendency for filmmakers to focus on the disenfranchised. From a Kenyan viewpoint, this at least creates sympathy, but ultimately undermines progress, fostering the impression that Africans aren’t equipped to tackle their nations’ issues.
I attended the University of Nairobi in the early nineties and made lifelong friendships with other university students. They’re now middle-class Kenyans who are not only interested in taking over the role of development in Africa; they have the funds and expertise to put their plans into action. Much to my surprise, after graduation my friends began making more money per year than I did. I’m an independent filmmaker, so that might not be saying much. But why was I surprised by their success? After all, they have the same degrees as I do. They’re equally intelligent and passionate about their careers. At the time however, my expectation was that challenges in Kenya would hold them back. I was wrong, but my attitude is emblematic of a typical worldview.
There is an expectation that development must be brought into African nations from the outside, and there’s little recognition of the change already happening from within. This is largely due to the media. The images we produce are far reaching. It is important for film to promote dialogue between different groups. But for real growth to happen, people must view each other as equally capable partners in change. Documentaries need to present a more balanced view of African societies and incorporate proactive, competent characters.
Chris Mburu is one such person. He is a contemporary Kenyan who bridges his country’s past, present and future. He may have been born poor, but he’s now a lawyer for the United Nations. He was once sponsored by a Westerner and is now a sponsor himself. Chris and his colleagues know how to transform the world around them. They embody empowerment and self-determination. Their voices are imperative to development, but they are nowhere on screen.
Chris believes the leading issue facing developing nations is not poverty, disease, ethnic or religious intolerance; he believes it is ignorance and lack of education. Without education, people are less likely to secure well-paying jobs, which could lift them out of poverty and enable them to give back to their society. Without education, a person is less likely to use a condom and protect him/herself from disease. And most importantly, a society without access to education is more ignorant, more desperate, and therefore, more susceptible to political manipulation along ethnic and religious lines. This can lead to violence and conflict. Chris believes in the transformative power of education, because this is what changed his life.
The circumstances in Kenya may seem daunting from the outside. The quality of education has gone down. There is enormous disparity of wealth. In 2007, during the presidential election, politicians used ethnicity in their campaign strategies, which sparked ethnic-based violence and divided the country along tribal lines. These are the exact types of situations Chris is trying to address. His plan is simple: support academically gifted kids from needy families. He considers his project an investment, which will grow exponentially. Because he was sponsored, he’s now in the position to sponsor multiple students. He does so with the understanding that they will grow up to sponsor a bigger group. Chris’s background gives him a unique perspective. When he encounters a child who is barefoot and destitute, he doesn’t see a victim, but a solution.
When I heard the story of Chris’s fund, I knew I could create something different. This film is an engaging narrative with huge stakes; the kids who compete for a scholarship are literally fighting for their lives. The relationship between Chris and Hilde is incredible and endearing. The inherent theme built into the story is that individual acts make a collective difference, and the main character offers a concrete example of exactly what action we can take. But I’m not drawn to the story for its message. I am making this film because it exposes a part of Kenya, which I know well and which I believe should be properly represented. This documentary challenges viewers to examine their previous perceptions about Kenya. It broadens and subverts the typical portrayal of what is happening in Africa today, which will reshape the dialogue between all of us who are interested in change.
– Jennifer Arnold
Director, Producer, Writer