Shannon’s Blog

A Small Act


Shannon Sutherland
Editor-in-Chief, African Kitchen Table


The film I watched this week was called A Small Act.

It was about a poor boy, Chris Mburu, attending a primary school in Kenya.

He was sponsored by a Swedish Holocaust survivor named Hilde Back to go to secondary school, went on to Harvard Law School, and then to work at the United Nations.


Hilde Back as a young lady

Today, Mr. Mburu works against crimes against humanity and genocide and I am proud to say that Mr. Mburu is a member of the Executive Board of Pencils For Africa.

There were two big concepts that made this story possible.

The first and probably most prominent of the two was the extreme importance of education.


Chris Mburu as a human rights lawyer for the United Nations

The school Chris attended was in a poor village where most of the students’ families could afford to send them only to primary school.

At the end of primary school, a small group of smart, lucky students went on to take a standardized test. If they pass this test they are eligible for secondary school, most of the students are not able to move onto this level mainly because of a financial burden on the family.

There are a few ways for a poor student to get to secondary school.


Students in the film, A Small Act, anxious about their exam results

One would be programs like the Hilde Back Educational Fund.

This scholarship program was started by Chris to help children who had been in a similar situation as himself and had not been allowed to advance not because they weren’t smart, but because they did not have the finances to continue.

He named the scholarship after his sponsor, Hilde Back. If a student scores above a certain amount of points on their certificate for primary education school exams, typically 380, they can receive a scholarship and be allowed to continue on in the world of education.


Shannon (center) at Portfolio PFA Cookie Fundraiser on April 1, 2015

I am happy to say that Pencils for Africa’s fundraising program, Portfolio PFA, is a supporter of the Hilde Back Educational Fund. Here is the response from Hilde Back Educational Fund’s Executive Director, Sarah Wambui Njuru, on our Portfolio PFA Cookie Fundraiser on April 1, 2015:

This is very great work by the young PFA team…

And the cookies look very delicious!

Their noble initiative goes a long way in supporting our work.

Best wishes to all,

Sarah Wambui Njuru,

Executive Director, Hilde Back Education Fund, Kenya


Scholarship Recipients of Hilde Back Education Fund, Kenya

The other way to advance actually brings me to the next big concept of the movie:

Compassion and giving a helping hand to those who need it. Many organizations exist to help a person or family sponsor a student.

Generally, it does not take a significant amount of money to help a student become educated, help them out of poverty, and afford them an opportunity to work and live. Hilde Back, as one individual, anonymously sponsored Chris not even knowing who he was, his promise, or what he would do with the opportunity she provided.

Hilde wasn’t a particularly wealthy woman, she was an everyday person in the eyes of many, but she became a symbol of hope and wonder for the boy in a small Kenyan village.

HildeBack HildeB


She changed his life and, by extension, the lives of hundreds of other students without even really knowing it. She did not meet Chris until after the Hilde Back foundation was up, running, educating students, and helping them and families out of poverty.

The film was amazing to me, because I noticed so much going on.


I saw the children working hard at their schoolwork because they understood what a privilege and what a blessing knowledge is.

I know that when I was the age of those kids, I was far more ignorant and ungrateful for my school and teachers because I did not understand how lucky I am to live in a place where my parents can send me to school, I am in a safe environment at school, and that I have brilliant, smart men and women educating me.

Education is potential. It is opportunity, and the kids in that village in Kenya understood that.


I notice the amazing compassion that Hilde possessed.

She, a holocaust survivor, knew what it was like to suffer and instead of becoming bitter and self-pitying, she learned from her past and used that knowledge and understanding to help others.


Filmmaker Jennifer Arnold, Chris Mburu and Hilde Back

Hilde Back is an example to us all about how little it takes to make such an amazing difference.


August 31, 2015

On the Way to School


Shannon Sutherland
Editor-in-Chief, African Kitchen Table


The fact of the matter is: education is utterly and desperately necessary.

That much is a ubiquitous and unquestionable fact taught to us from the earliest age, and is reenforced time again throughout our childhood, adolescence, and indeed our entire lives.

Whether you want to be a baker, a banker, or a bartender, we as a society rely on knowledge to function efficiently and effectively. People in all the world’s governments must be educated and well-rounded, as must be the educators, lawyers, officers and the brokers, just as much as the store keepers and house maids.

As someone who has spent her life growing up in a wealthy and empowering household, I have always had the privilege of a thorough, high-quality education at little expense to my being.


My father and mother have always stressed the importance of knowledge to me and my younger brother for as long as I can remember. They always say to me that a good education can take me to the farthest ends of the earth and all the vast expanses of life.

The film I watched this past week, On the Way to School, embodied the importance of working hard to gain knowledge beautifully.

The duration of the film was spent going back and forth between four groups of students from different parts of rural life, and the everyday aspects of their trips to school.


It began with a eleven year old boy and his younger sister, traveling 2 hours every morning to their school in Kenya across a wide area of savannah. Next, it switched to a 13 year girl living in the Moroccan Atlas Mountains, traveling 4 hours every Monday with two of her classmates on steep slopes and rocky paths to get to their boarding school.

Then, the film showed a young boy in Patagonia, Argentina, travelling an hour and a half every day across desolate planes with his little sister, on a horse. Lastly, it showed a disabled boy living on the Bay of Bengal, India, who had to be pushed by his two brothers for over an hour in a makeshift wheelchair all the way across rivers and slippery dirt roads to school everyday.


I was shocked and in great admiration of these students and their determination to go through such trouble and danger to go to school and get an education day after day, in such rough circumstances. One major difference that stuck out to me between the students in the film and my observations of my classmates here in Marin County, California was attitude.

In schools I have attended, there has too often been an attitude of ungratefulness and entitlement towards good schools, educators, and education.


Too often, our wonderful opportunities and important education have been taken for granted by those of us receiving it. The children in the film were eternally grateful and motivated to do well, as were the families, because they understood their education’s extreme value and, in such areas of the world, rarity. Many in my position drive to school, or take a bus, ride a bicycle, or even walk, in peace, safety, and without any fear or even enthusiasm. Meanwhile, children all over the world, bless them, walk hours and hours, kilometer after perilous kilo-meter, to reach their schools. They learn with zeal and have a thirst for gaining knowledge and wisdom.


On the Way to School is a stellar film.

I enjoyed that there was absolutely no narration; just the screen and the viewer to make what they will of the projections. I also enjoyed the inclusiveness of female and disabled students in the film. It really did reach in deep into the different types of students and the difficulty each faced individually, as well as a collectively.

I invite you all to contribute your own thoughts on the topic and/or the film. It is very important for us to open a discussion on such an important subject as education, specifically the issue of lack of education in rural parts of the world, and the greatness of these motivated children.


The Good Lie


Shannon Sutherland
Editor-in-Chief, African Kitchen Table


We are surrounded by ideals in this world.

For many of us living in the Western world, those ideals may include an ideal body, an ideal report card, an ideal household, or an ideal income. For someone living in South Sudan those ideals would understandably vary drastically.

This past Tuesday, July 21, 2015, I watched The Good Lie, a brilliant movie about a group of kids whose village is destroyed in a civil war in South Sudan, and as consequence must walk hundreds of miles to a refugee camp in Kenya, where they are then sent to America.

They lived their daily lives, climbing, playing, and reciting the names of their grandfathers. Even though it was so different from how we might live, they were happy and very content in Sudan.  Unfortunately, the existing civil war in their area forced them away from their ideals of life and home in Africa, and into life in Kansas City where all their ideals were challenged and changed.


Post movie, I discussed it with my mother, who accompanied me in my viewing.

We talked about my thoughts about their having to adapt to our lifestyles and ideals, and my mom added an interesting point. She said that she found it interesting that even though we are all born into different families, different backgrounds, different countries, different financial positions, and different levels of oppression, we are all very similar at our core.

We agreed that, indeed, the whole point of the movie was a certain motive within Theo, the oldest survivor, to tell a good lie in order to protect his brothers and sisters. That sense of community and desire to protect those that we love, is global. I explained to my mother that a strong sense of community is a large part of what we learn from Pencils For Africa.


We believe that we should do what we can to help those that are living in worse and marginalized conditions, with little or no access to clean water, food, and crucial medical care. She did surprise me next, telling me that she sometimes felt that it seemed snobby when some entities helped, almost as if they were acting bigger in the sense that they are so much wealthier. I thought it an interesting point of view, although I could not agree with it. I argued that although some entities may be richer financially, African cultures are often much richer in spirit and sense of community.


We also recounted the point that Mr. Ajania made back in Spring, 2105 at the PFA Film Festival about some countries who historically partook in The Scramble For Africa today gave what he referred to as “guilt money”.

That is a dangerous game to play, because in many African countries there are corrupt governments in place and the money is either pocketed by officials or wasted.

That, in my eyes, is the beauty of Pencils for Africa:

Through Pencils for Africa’s Portfolio PFA program, we raise money through school fundraisers and, instead of directing it straight to Africa, we send it to partner organizations such as Bicycles Against Poverty, who know how to wisely put the money towards the benefit of Africans. It is a smart donation because we know exactly where the money will go and how it will directly benefit the people in Africa, instead of blindly giving to organizations who do not have a history of giving to the people, but do a lot of shame and guilt advertising, or have political motivations.


My mother also brought up the fact that we may not know how to best help them all the time without westernizing them because we are so unaccustomed to their ways of life. I told her that this was exactly why it is important to listen to the people of Africa. They do not need what we sometimes assume they need, like cell phones or computers. In some places, all a child needs to go to school is one pencil. That’s it, that is the only requirement, they don’t need an iPad.

All an African woman in rural Uganda needs in order to get her vegetables to the market, or to fetch water for her family, or to get her sick child to a clinic, is a bicycle, not a Lamborghini.

At the end of the movie, my brother, mother, and I had a group hug out of our newfound gratitude to be together and so fortunate. To think that this story of those amazing kids and what they became is so common is mind blowing. It was a real eye opener for me and my family.

I invite you all to all to contribute your thoughts on the topic, weather you have seen the film or not, although I do recommend taking the time to see it.


  1. Rutendo A Urenje08-20-2015

    Thank you for your wonderful insight into the movie.

    I watched The Good Lie with a group of friends in December, 2014.

    One of my best friends insisted that this was a movie for me and made sure everyone of our friends would not watch it until we were all together and we could watch it in community.

    I wept in the movie, obviously because I could see the reality of what was so light-heartedly set forth in the movie. I could relate, because once upon a time I was in South Sudan for a month. I agree with your mother’s assertion Shannon, that we are all the same at our core.

    People are just people who have the same basic needs. What slightly disturbed me in the movie however was the slight condensation that pervaded through the hilarious moments in the movie. I know it was to make the movie lighter and bearable, however I find that much of what we know of many horrific events in places far from us is watered down so that we are able to swallow and digest them and then return to our comfortable lives.

    I hope that, as with so many of the Pencils for Africa students, we will always be authentic and true to address the deep-seated core needs we all have as people.

    After all we are all the same, with different experiences and contexts.

    Thank you Shannon!


  2. Chyah Weitzman08-13-2015

    Dear Shannon,

    It has been said that without education a person is stuck in a windowless room.

    With education a person finds himself in a room with all its windows open to the outside world. In other words, people who were afforded an education have more opportunities to succeed and feel successful.

    In the movie, On The Way To School, I found myself getting caught up on the personal journeys of the children from Africa, Morocco, Argentina and India. Too often, we forget how lucky we are to be able to get to school with the use of cars, buses, bikes, as well as walking on paved pathways. Understanding and connecting to other people around the world promotes peace and empathy. Relationships and cultural understanding are critical in today’s world.

    Global education is imperative because we are living in a global society.

    A sense of place and your relationship to others is a key part of the twenty-first century’s learning experience. The Dalai Lama says:

    “When educating the minds of our youth, we must not forget to educate their hearts.”

    It was easy to see that these beautiful young students were full of heart as they journeyed to get to school to become educated.

    All the best, I really enjoy your insights, keep up the great work.

    Ms. Weitzman

    chyahsam 3

  3. Leslie Kennedy08-12-2015

    Wonderful write-ups and observations. You have inspired and motivated me to see both films!

  4. Colin Yoon08-12-2015

    I really enjoyed reading both your articles. I can’t wait to see more.

    – Colin

  5. Pascal Bashombana08-06-2015

    I like how Shannon understand the struggles all these kids are facing to get to school, and the privilege she has as a child to be born in USA and have a good opportunity.

    I like also the fact that she is devoted to put her time and energy to raise money for different partner organizations in Africa through Portfolio PFA.

    Personally, I like this movie, On The Way To School, because it is so inspiring and tells the story of these kids who face hard time to get to school.

    I hope Mariame and her team of “Sur le chemin de l’ecole” (the producers of On The Way To School who are based in Paris, France and who I have been in touch with) can continue this series and I hope we can have a strong and good collaboration with her team to raise awareness about their work.


    Pascal Bashombana
    Member of the Advisory Board
    Pencils for Africa


  6. Chyah Weitzman08-04-2015

    Dear Shannon,

    Sometimes, people can block out the needs and experiences of others, intentionally not listening to or recognizing them, because it may require some uncomfortable choices once the reality is understood. Often, America is thought of solely as a land of opportunity.

    We overlook hardships what new arrivals to the U.S. may have experienced, focusing instead on the assumed potential before them.

    America is and has been a safe haven for many people, but in arriving on these shores, they leave behind a life and a home. As we engage with refugees in our communities, like these Lost Boys and Girls, I feel it is imperative that we remember that they might be carrying loss with them. It is not always easy to be a newcomer in the U.S. Many were running from something. Many are still dealing with the hardships they experienced.

    There were so many issues to discuss, but one of the main focus points was on The Good Lie.

    Similar to the story of Huck Finn, the main character Mamere becomes overwhelmed with his circumstances. Escaping difficulty in Sudan, he and his family of friends have encountered obstacles in America. With every choice Mamere makes, he struggles to escape the guilt of the past. He feels as if he is at the center of everything that has gone wrong and thus concludes that he is at fault for it all, beginning with the taking of Theo by the soldiers.

    When we are facing difficult situations, it’s easy to begin to turn towards blame. We often blame others or we can blame ourselves. However, we cannont blame our way to success and happiness. Blaming keeps our eyes focused on the past. And yet, success lies in the future.

    The focus of the good lies was serving someone else. Often, lies are self-serving. Mamere makes a key distinction that the lie became good because it saved the life of another person.

    The movie mentioned a beautiful African Proverb:

    If you want to go fast, go alone.

    If you want to go far, go together.

    This is what the movie meant as well, going together as a family that was formed through the survival of several friends in Sudan. Together they were strong and could work out the difficulties of their new environments.

    They were – as we talk about in Pencils for Africa – an Ubuntu in spirit and in life.

    Cannot wait to continue discussing how the life of one person, effects the life of us all with you.

    Continue the great work, I am so proud of you.

    All the best,

    Ms. Weitzman


  7. Sarah Wambui07-28-2015

    Thanks Shannon for sharing your thoughts.

    I watched the movie with my children about 2 months ago and it made me appreciate the importance of peace in our lives.

    I was truly grateful that my country, Kenya has enjoyed relative peace even to be considered a peace haven by our neighboring country, South Sudan.



    Sarah Wambui Njuru,
    Executive Director
    Hilde Back Educational Fund,
    Nairobi, Kenya

  8. Paola Gianturco07-25-2015

    Congratulations on your first blog for African Kitchen Table, Shannon!

    It’s well written and it raises important issues for readers to consider and reflect on.

    I have not seen the movie but, on your recommendation, I will!

    Thank you for your contributions. Looking forward to more postings!

    Grandmother Power


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