What ever happened to Ndugu?

To me, Ndugu, the little Tanzanian boy, embodies potential. Now he would be a teenager. What ever happened to Ndugu?

He is a fictional character in the wonderful film “About Schmidt,” the little boy that Jack Nicholson portraying Warren Schmidt sponsors, sending him checks and his rambling but insightful letters. Could such a small, compassionate act really make a difference?

I recently learned about Chris Mburu, whose real life began on a similar path. Living in poverty in Kenya, there was little hope for Chris as a young boy, until he was sponsored by Hilde Back, now the namesake of a Foundation.

Chris Mburu earned a law degree from Harvard University and is a human rights activist. Below are excerpts from a recent interview:

Chris Mburu LL.M. ’93 is the subject of a new documentary, “A Small Act,” which chronicles his search for a benefactor, Hilde Back, whose sponsorship allowed him to remain in school in Kenya. With Back’s support, Mburu successfully completed his primary school education. He went on to earn degrees from the University of Nairobi and Harvard Law School. The film follows Mburu as he embarks on a mission to reciprocate her philanthropy with a scholarship fund of his own.

How and when did you find out who ‘saved’ you?

I was informed that there was a Swedish lady who was supporting my education, and she even used to write letters to me which were interpreted for me because I did not speak English then, and she would even send me gifts, such as shoes, so I knew she existed, but I never met her. Then we lost touch and I was unable to locate her until decades later when the Swedish Ambassador in Kenya heard my story and decided to help me find my Swedish benefactor.

When did you decide to find Ms. Back and ‘pay it forward’?

I had always wanted to find her, especially after I graduated from Harvard but I had lost her address. But even before I found her, I decided to start the foundation in her name because I still remembered her name.

Can you tell us a little more about the work you do as a human rights attorney?

I have been doing human rights work for the last 20 years, first as an activist back home in Kenya, then I focused on human rights while doing my LLM at HLS, after which I began working with organizations such as Amnesty International, Global Rights, and now the United Nations. My work has mainly involved training human rights actors in different parts of the world become more effective in human rights advocacy. I have also worked for peacekeeping missions in which we have been protecting victims of mass human rights violations including genocide. Currently I am heading the anti-discrimination section of the UN Human Rights Agency, based in Geneva, Switzerland, and my work involves doing research on discrimination and intolerance that could result in the commission of serious crimes.

Nurturing a young mind, even with small acts, can make a world of difference.

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