Last week marked the annual celebration of St. Thomas of Villanova at the University. The celebration commenced on Thursday evening with the St. Thomas of Villanova lecture that is given each year by a prominent figure conversing with members of the University community about pressing issues society is faced with.
This year’s lecture featured Chris Mburu, a human rights activist. Mburu currently works for the United Nations, heading the Anti-Discrimination section of the Human Rights agency in Geneva, Switzerland.
Mburu’s childhood in one word was “tough.” He lived in extreme poverty and was unable to afford even a pair of shoes until he was 10 years old. He grew up in central Kenya and worked on coffee plantations most days.
“I performed a lot of child labor,” Mburu said.
At a young age, Mburu showed himself as a bright student.
In a devoted Catholic family, his mother would speak with priests to try and get financial support for her children.
One day, a Swedish woman named Hilde Bach heard of Mburu’s plight and wanted to help. From Sweden, she began to send money to pay for Mburu’s secondary school education.
In secondary school, Mburu excelled and moved on to Nairobi University. After coming from such extreme poverty, this was an incredible feat.
Still gaining support from Bach, Mburu was told to go to America and obtain an education in human rights.
“I saw that need was overwhelming; I always said ‘what can I do?’” Mburu said. After seeing such hardships in his home country of Kenya, Mburu knew that a career in human rights activism was important to him.
“I experienced some problems in my home country,” Mburu said. “We were under a dictatorship and I worked to democratize the country in a resistance movement.”
This was all during his undergraduate degree in the late 1980’s.
It was then that those around him urged him to go to America, which led him to Harvard Law School and to eventually become an international human rights lawyer.
He graduated in 1993 from Harvard with an LLM degree and from there, he found himself working for various human rights organizations and soon, was working for the United Nations.
He credits some of his getting to the United Nations to attending Harvard Law. Mburu has been involved in many projects within the United Nations and as an international human rights lawyer.
Currently Mburu is based in Rwanda advising human rights lawyers and judges on human rights issues such as genocide that the people of Rwanda have been faced with in the past.
At the ripe age of 47, Mburu has accomplished a plethora of feats personally and professionally and, along with that, has learned the importance of helping out those who have helped him.
Mburu explained that Hilde Bach’s generosity and belief in him as a young man has helped him more than he could have ever imagined.
Because of Bach, he was able to attend one of the most prestigious universities in the world and to obtain a coveted position in the United Nations.
“At one point I said to myself ‘I need to do this for someone else,’” Mburu said. “This is something I am determined to do.”
Because of Bach, Mburu decided to do as she did and help fund the education of bright young people in his home village.
“And what more fitting a name for the foundation that to be the name of the woman that helped me so many years ago,” Mburu said.
From then on, the Hilde Bach Education Fund was born.
Well-known Hollywood filmmaker Jennifer Arnold learned of Mburu’s story and how he is helping people in his home country because of the generosity of a woman he had never even met and decided to make a film about it.
“A Small Act” was released in 2010 as an HBO documentary. It was screened at the prominent Sundance Film Festival in 2011 and nominated for an Emmy Award for best documentary film.
Because of the notoriety of the film, Mburu’s foundation became a multi-million dollar one.
“Because of the film, I saw that Americans soon asked ‘what can I do?’ and from that we received thousands of donations to the foundation,” Mburu said.
The Hilde Bach foundation is now able to provide secondary school education to about 400 children in Kenya.
In his lecture Thursday, Mburu reiterated the importance of all of us to do at least one small act of charity.
“I am the product of a small act,” Mburu said. He explained that because of the generosity of Bach, whom he met 30 years after his first donation from her, he was able to flourish in life.
“Because the need in the world is so overwhelming, people are usually hesitant to help because they don’t know what to do. We all need to ask ‘what can I do?’”
At this community service driven University, this message holds true. Mburu was introduced by University President Rev. Father Peter Donahue, O.S.A., as well as a fellow Kenyan and a University sophomore who also happens to be a “product of a small act.”
During the Day of Service weekend, Mburu’s message was motivating to get out there and do what we can as a community.
“If there’s a multiplicity of small acts, that’s what gets the world moving,” Mburu said.
In light of everything Mburu went through, he is determined to give back. “It is my crusade to encourage young people to help others. I have a lot of interesting statistics—90 percent of the people in the world believe that 90 percent of the things in the world can not be done. By performing small acts, amazing things will happen,” Mburu said.