Hilde Back and Chris Mburu: An Unusual Friendship

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    Mr. Chris Mburu holding hands with Ms. Hilde Back. Photo: Hilde Back Education Fund.

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    Hilde Back and Chris Mburu at the home of Hilde in Sweden. Photo: Mike Gitonga .

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    Hilde Back cutting the cake at the celebration of her 90th Birthday. Photo: Hilde Back Education Fund.

She is a 91-year-old former pre-school teacher living in Västerås, Sweden. He is a 47-year-old Senior Human Rights Advisor to the UN, born in Kenya, and currently dividing his time between Kigali, Nairobi, Geneva and Toronto. You wouldn’t guess they’re really, really close friends, but they are. It all started with a ”Small act” more than four decades ago.

It’s 1 pm on a Thursday and Hilde Back is ladling up today’s lunch: a clear fish soup with potatoes, carrots and leek, sided by – and this is specifically pointed out – non homemade bread and exactly one can of beer.

“I never bake, and I almost never drink, she smiles. It’s just not my thing. Let me know if I should re-heat your bowl; one doesn’t want cold soup, does one?

The reason I’m sitting in a 91-year-old woman’s apartment in Västerås, one hour north-west of Stockholm, is, well, not entirely uncomplicated. But once you get the basic premise, you’re unlikely to forget. It’s a story that is as heartbreaking as it is inspiring.

Hilde Back was born into a Jewish family in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, in 1922. As the political oppression escalated in the 1933, the family saw no other alternative than to leave the country. In December 1938, her two brothers were sent with so called child transport to Sweden. In January 1940  they were joined by Hilde. Their parents, however, never joined them. They both died in Nazi concentration camps, Ms Back’s father in Theresienstadt, and her mother in Auschwitz.

In the early 1940s Hilde was accepted at a child minding course, and later began teacher training in Uppsala. In this cold corner of the world, she was given a new life. All of this, she says, was only made possible due to the openness of Swedish society. Ms Back is not only an exceptionally strong human being, she is also exceptionally grateful (although she’d admit to neither):

“Just like I was given support when I got here, I was carrying this feeling of wanting to give some-thing back", Ms. Back remembers. "I have always given money to various charities, Save the Children and that. But that's always anonymous".

That would change, however. Quite a few years later, in the early 1970’s, Ms. Back worked with educating pre-school and recreational school teachers in Västerås. The school head, Sven-Bertil Magnusson, had worked at Sida in Kenya, and started a sponsor project for "gifted kids".

"I was one of the few who was given a named child: a five/six-year-old boy named Chris. His family was desperately poor. It wasn’t much money, but it was enough for his schooling for 8 to 10 years. Sometimes, I received a letter from his older sister, but then it petered out", Ms. Back says.

Fast-forward to 2002 and Hilde Back, now in her early 80’s, is tracked down by the Swedish Ambassador in Nairobi. It turns out that Chris, last name Mburu, has now earned degrees from the University of Nairobi and Harvard Law School, and works as a Human Rights Advisor at the United Nations. Now he wants to meet up with his benefactor to express his gratitude. And that, he does.

To make a long story short, Mr. Mburu has founded a scholarship programme in Ms. Back’s name, to replicate the kindness he once received, invites her to Nairobi, and the two become the closest of friends. These unlikely turns of events are played out in the 2010 documentary ”A Small Act”, directed by Jennifer Arnold. The film premiered at Sundance Film Festival, with Hilde and Chris present (and, for that matter, Bill Gates with whom Hilde was acquainted) and went on to be nominated for an Emmy Award. Needless to say, this further tightens the bond between the two. Today, Mr. Mburu refers to Ms. Back as his ”second mum”.

"Yes, you could say that I have been given an extra family through Chris. Sometimes we talk on the phone and e-mail each other, and he is usually here for my birthday", Ms. Back says and heaves some cinnamon buns into the microwave. Not in 2012 though, she points out, because then he arranged a lavish affair in Nairobi instead. Ms. Back's 90th birthday was celebrated twice. First, at a five star hotel in Kenya with 350 seated guests, including ambassadors, newspaper representatives, members from the family of ex-US president Roosevelt as well as the Chief Justice of Kenya. Followed by one of the biggest parties ever held in the village where Chris grew up, where over 4 000 guests paid tribute to the famous lady from the north.

"Chris likes parties. They even had printed water bottle labels with my name on them. Yes, that was perhaps going a bit far…”, Ms. Back smiles.

Mr. Mburu’s life today would probably have been very different if it were not for this ”random act of kindness”. But what has it meant for Ms. Back? How would her life have been different if she had not put in that money (which incidentally, she points out, was considerably less than the 15 dollars a month mentioned in the film)?

"Well, I have thought about that", she ponders. "I would of course never had met Chris and travelled to Kenya. I have met so many other interesting people through this. I had never been to the U.S. before, and now I have, doing interviews about the film. After the Sundance Festival, we went to… that Roger Ebert's film festival, me and my friend Christina. That was also a strange and exciting experience."

Text: Niklas Eriksson.