Shannon’s Film Reviews

We Will Rise

A Film Review


Shannon Sutherland
Former Assistant Editor
Pencils for Africa
What is Smart?
Girl Smart Africa
African Kitchen Table


In We Will Rise, the CNN documentary released in league with Michelle Obama, there are even more amazing stories of girls making unfathomably large sacrifices in order to get an education.

Seeing the sacrifices of these amazing young girls and seeing them struggle against the will of their families, their cultures, and their peers for a chance to learn got me thinking about my own life and privileges. I recall the old patterns of thought which I used to fall into:

The guilt at all that I had while my sisters all over the world had so little; the false sense of helplessness; thinking that the issues I was learning about were simply too much to handle. I know these same emotions are in the hearts of many in America regarding girl’s education in rural areas of developing countries.


Now allow me to rid us of that mental fog, that cloud of useless emotions which tell us we are powerless to effect change. As members of the global community who happen to be more financially and resourcefully fortunate, we have the greatest power to effect change!

Often, the trap we fall into is not knowing how we can help, or feeling deterred by the sheer size and complexity of human rights issues such as girls’ education in rural areas in developing countries.

I would like to offer some mental bolt cutters with which to expel these enslaving chains.


We might think of girls in developing countries as comparatively disempowered and enslaved within their limited opportunities to obtain education – that part seems obvious to you, doesn’t it? However, here is the part that may not seem so obvious to you: You and I are also disempowered and enslaved within our own self imposed view of what we can do to help our own sisters within our own global neighborhood; you and I are also disempowered and enslaved, as global citizens, whenever we indulge ourselves in guilt and pity.

We should rejoice, for we are capable of effecting change.

— Shannon


Nobody ever got anywhere by sitting around in their own guilt and pity.

That is no help to anyone, and especially not to those girls who deserve change.

What we should feel is compassion and empathy for these girls, that they are not treated as the humane, capable, strong, intelligent leaders that they are. We should feel solidarity, for no girl should have to choose between her education and her culture. We should feel inspired by movements such as Girl Rising.


And finally, we should rejoice, for we are capable of effecting change for these girls.

By educating ourselves about the struggles that these girls face to learn, we can understand how to better channel our activism and resources. By listening to girls around the world, we can better understand their struggle and spread their stories to the world. By treating these girls as our own sisters and supporting them in their fight for their right to knowledge, we empower them to make decisions confidently and believe in their truly unlimited value as honored members of our global community to effect change for good.

This problem is not hopeless. It is fixable.

— Shannon

CNN - Girl Rising Shoot: Flotus visits Liberia

This problem is not hopeless. It is fixable.

And we, as members of a global community – not a local community – do have an obligation to educate ourselves, recognize what we can do to empower these girls, and then make a practical impact for good.

— Shannon


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.