Before he got an education, Kimani Nyambura didn’t know how people could fit into an airplane when it looked so small flying up above — smaller than his hand when he held it up to the sky. But the Kenya native said his perspective and life was changed by getting to go to school.
This is the message impressed upon students from four Kenai Peninsula Borough School District schools last week by Nyambura and Chris Mburu, who are both from the same small village in Kenya and the subject of the documentary “A Small Act.” Mburu is a human rights lawyer who is a senior advisor on human rights for the United Nations. Their trip was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education Native Education Program, and was made possible by Project GRAD Kenai Peninsula and the school district.
From humble beginnings in his small village, Mburu rose through the education system with the financial help of Hilde Back, a Holocaust survivor from Sweden who sponsored his education. After completing primary school, Mburu attended the University of Nairobi and got his masters degree from Harvard Law School. As a way to pay forward the kindness extended to him by Back, Mburu created the Hilde Back Education Fund in 2001, which pays for hundreds of children in Kenya to go to school.
Now, when he’s not advising at the UN, Mburu dedicates his time to campaigning for education as a human right. He said he wants to raise awareness and support in order to pressure governments in many countries to provide basic education for free — something not every country outside the U.S. does.
“We’re trying to spread this message far and wide, and we want to actually show the governments that this is a message … that is not going away, and kind of embarrass them into action,” he said while presenting to Port Graham School on Thursday, Nov. 16.
As part of that effort, Mburu travels to speak with school children all over the country and recently began presenting with Nyambura, a student at Northwest University in Seattle, Washington. Nyambura was one of the many children able to go to school thanks to Mburu’s foundation. The two presented at a conference in San Francisco, which is where Jane Beck of Project GRAD saw them and knew she had to get them to come to Alaska.
Mburu joked to the students and staff at Port Graham that he felt like he should get credit for going to another country by traveling to Alaska, even though it’s part of the United States.
“I felt like it was the farthest point on the planet, you know?” he said of his invitation from Beck. “I was just curious. I was like, ‘I want to get there.’”
At Port Graham, Mburu and Nyambura led a run through the village with the students and teachers, something Mburu likes to do as part of his campaign. The pair also presented in Kenai, Ninilchik and Razdolna before leaving Alaska.
“I think that all of us are kind of trying to work towards having these kids appreciate their education and work hard at it,” said Port Graham Principal Nancy Kleine. “And a lot of them do, but I think that when you live in an isolated place, you have a limited experience, and so it was really nice for them to get kind of that worldly view of education and just, you know, what it could mean if they work hard and finish … high school.”
Klein said Port Graham is in good shape when it comes to its graduation rate. The kids stick with it and the parents really support their education, which is not always the case with Alaska Native students, she said.
“First of all, Project GRAD is just an incredible resource for us, and so for them to bring people in for the kids to experience and listen to and get another perspective is just really appreciated,” she said. “We work pretty hard to have these kids be able to have opportunities, and this was a pretty amazing opportunity for them to hear somebody who really didn’t have the opportunities that a lot of other kids do.”
The disparity between opportunities for students in the West versus students in developing countries was a large focus of the presentations.
Mburu and Nyambura told Port Graham students about trying to go to school in the midst of political unrest and physical danger, and told middle and high school students in Razdolna about having to wake up at 6 a.m. to go fetch water in a bucket before being able to walk to school.
Students in the Russian Old Believer villages of Razdonla, Voznesenka and Kachemak-Selo aren’t strangers to a more natural way of living, though. High school teacher Laura Murphy gave Mburu and Nyambura a gift bag after their visit, containing smoked salmon, a pumpkin grown in a local high tunnel and an ermine trapped by one of the students.
Mburu said meeting with students of many different cultures helps to further his cause.
“The message is universal,” he said. “I work for the United Nations and I always like showing that whatever we are talking about — we’re not talking about Kenya, we’re not talking about America, we’re not talking about, you know, Egypt — we’re talking about humanity. And as long as I can get this message heard everywhere around the world, that’s what I want to do. I feel like I could swim across to Russia.”
For Murphy, it was just as important for her to introduce her students to people of a different background.
“I felt like it was important to allow the students here in such a small village to see that the world really is big,” she said. “And that people really do exist in other countries and not just in books, and to see that one small act of goodness can create a change in their own lives and their village.”
During a question and answer session, Nyambura talked about how he keeps in touch with his mother and family back in Africa, mainly via Facebook while he continues college in Seattle.
“What was nice about what Kimani said was that you don’t have to loose touch with your family, and to get an education,” Murphy said.
The documentary “A Small Act” was shown during the pair’s trip to Kenai, but some students in the other schools watched it before their guests came. It was a treat for some of them to recognize that Nyambura, who was 14 in the film, was the 20-something college student standing before them.
After watching the documentary, Murphy’s students researched how to sponsor children in ways similar to how Mburu and Nyambura were sponsored. During their visit with the men on Nov. 17, it came up that the school has a pile of books that are old that they are considering getting rid of or donating.
“We’ve looked into providing a flock of chicks or a share of water buffalo,” Murphy said. “And then I think it would be wonderful, if it would be needed, to send the books. I think the kids would be all about sending old things, that are old to us, but new to other people.”
Both Mrubu and Nyambura said a highlight of the trip to Alaska was getting to interact with the students themselves.
“It’s connecting,” Mburu said. “Because they remind me of who I was 40 years ago. It’s so exciting. Actually, this is the highlight of every visit. … When you’re talking to the kids, it all comes back, and it reminds you every moment why you’re doing this.”