Right now, in Kenya, there is a group of bright high school seniors getting ready to graduate from a school that, up until a couple of years ago, didn't even exist. Writer, director and actor Turk Pipkin is both the author and director of Building Hope, the inspirational book and film that tells their story. Both projects benefit The Nobelity Project, a nonprofit Pipkin founded to promote basic rights among children through education and action.
Kirkus recently had the opportunity to sit down with the long-tall Texan following a screening of Building Hope in Pipkin's hometown of Austin. The Sopranos alum talked about coaxing miracles out of the arid African landscape and how every one of us can change the world.
Check out today's list for other reads on humanitarian issues around the world.
Mahiga Hope High School just celebrated its two-year anniversary. How are things going?
It's going great. We started with those first nine kids in the ninth grade, and every year the enrollment has grown. Now, we're up to our first senior class which will complete school in December. The high school has about 225 students enrolled. With the high school and primary school together, we've got about 650 students. We continue to work and the community continues to make the school better. There was also a kind of an amazing coincidence—or a miracle—depending on how you look at it. It rained on the grand opening. And when we went back a year later to show the movie to the students—it rained again during the rain sequence. That was pretty wild.
Not only did you help create the school, you also documented the experience in the book and movie, Building Hope. Why did you decide to tell the story this way?
I can't think of anybody else that sort of works like I do as a storyteller combining writing and filmmaking quite as much as I do. There are great advantages to film because other people can see it—and your memory is a faulty thing anyway. Film [records] just what happens. It's also like having a diary going all the time. But there are advantages to being a writer, too. If, for instance, you didn't have a camera rolling or if something took place at night when there wasn't any light, you've still got that description.
You crisscrossed between Kenya and the U.S. many times during the construction of Mahiga Hope High School. What was it like transitioning between cultures?
I've traveled to many places where there was a lot of poverty. I've spent a lot of time in Mexico and Central America, for instance. The first time I went to India, the culture shock was pretty hard. Coming home gets really wild. Especially when you come from an area where kids, even if they're getting enough food, are only getting barely enough food, so they tend to be pretty skinny and smaller than their parents. Then you come back to the United States—and I'm one to be talking—but the people here are huge. It's one of the most visible things for me. But otherwise, I haven't noticed that much. People are very open over there, and they're very open here. I didn't really find that people overseas in other countries and the developing world as different as a lot people think they're going to be. Despite what the local customs are, they're still family-oriented.
How can you help people understand the nature of poverty surrounding Mahiga Hope High School?
People often ask me why do I want to work on schools in Kenya and not work in the U.S. And there answer to that aspect of it is: There's just a whole lot more bang for the buck. The money that we spent on building the whole high school and rebuilding the whole primary school would have built one classroom in the U.S. So, it's going to impact a lot of kids over a long period of time. Kenya is probably the shining light of African economies right now. Even if people don't have high school educations, they still have a fair literacy rate. But their per-capita income is just unbelievably low. People have to grow their own food. Or they have to barter and trade, and be clever in other ways. There's been a lot development work done. But education is the key. People have got to be educated, so that they can find a way to earn a better living and create their own economies.
What struck you the most about this whole experience?
I thought about how much impact we have. We're not a very big organization. And we've affected a lot of people in this community in Kenya, and a lot of other communities we're working in now as well. We've also affected a lot of people in the U.S. who have been a part of this work. Whether they donated books or donated money or they volunteered, people who have worked with us in the U.S. have been affected. In the trailer we say, 'It doesn't take a big effort to make a difference.' We're trying to use this book and film as a platform for two things: for other people to see that they can make a real difference in the world with their own actions; and for all the institutions of the world to understand that universal secondary education is a must.
Any advice for those you've inspired to help?
Some people say, 'When I make a lot of money, I'm going to do good things.' And I always say, 'Don't wait.' It's not about money, it's about finding an issue that you care about and doing something. Some people will read this book and they'll be inspired to connect with kids in Kenya. Some people will read this book and they'll be inspired to connect with kids in their own town. It's really about reaching out to other people and sharing your ideas, your energy and your love.