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Maxwell Simba ’19: From Nairobi to Johannesburg via Hollywood

Maxwell Simba grew up in a small agricultural town called Kitali in northern Rift Valley, Kenya. The youngest of three, he was raised mostly by his mother. Growing up in a household of mostly women, Maxwell discovered that from a young age that he had a passion for the arts, specifically acting.

On the outskirts of Nairobi at the prestigious Alliance High School, Maxwell’s passion and skill for acting were discovered when he was selected as part of the theater group to audition for a nondescript role. Maxwell and his peers had no idea if the audition was for a TV show or film. He did not hear anything for a few weeks and had all but forgotten about the audition until he received a phone call one afternoon informing him that he had been selected for a callback. In his next audition, he met his current mentor and role model, Chiwetel Ejiofor. Chiwetel Umeadi Ejiofor CBE is a British-Nigerian Academy Award Nominated actor well known for his performance in the Academy Award-winning film, 12 Years a Slave. Maxwell, fifteen at the time, having only received acting classes at Alliance High School was selected by Chiwetel to star in the Netflix original film as William Kamkwamba ’08, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind tells the story of William Kamkwamba ’08 who at the age of thirteen is thrown out of school because his family is no longer able to afford the school fees. William secretly begins spending his time in the library where he discovers and learns how to build a windmill to save his village from the horrible famine Malawi experienced in the early 2000s. An innovator and author, William was subsequently admitted as one of the inaugural students at African Leadership Academy in 2008.

The shooting of the film took approximately two months. To Maxwell’s surprise, one of the most challenging parts of filming was the extreme heat in Malawi. During his time on set, Maxwell was not only working hard as a novice actor, but he was also having to keep up with his school work.  Luckily, his family on set was extremely supportive of his academic goals and as the only young person on the set Maxwell received continuous support from the producers, directors, and his fellow cast members.

As a relatively inexperienced actor, Maxwell felt the great burden of accurately representing William. Maxwell had the privilege of spending time with William during the shooting to understand and get to know his personality. Through his portrayal of William, Maxwell was able to help celebrate the great triumph brought to the continent. Inspired by William Kamkwamba and his peers at Alliance, Maxwell knew that he eventually wanted to attend African Leadership Academy. 

(L-R) Maxwell Simba '18, CEO of Netflix Reed Hasting, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and William Kamkwamba '08 attend the Netflix film "The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind" Sundance Film Festival Park City screening at The Ray Theatre on January 26, 2019 in Park City, Utah.  (Photo by Owen Hoffmann/Getty Images for Netflix)

(L-R) Maxwell Simba ’18, CEO of Netflix Reed Hasting, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and William Kamkwamba ’08 attend the Netflix film “The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind” Sundance Film Festival Park City screening at The Ray Theatre on January 26, 2019 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Owen Hoffmann/Getty Images for Netflix)

Maxwell’s acting propelled him to experience the Hollywood scene. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and the Berlinale Film Festival.  At the Sundance Film Festival, it received the Alfred P. Sloane Award, a prize given to a feature film that focuses on science or technology as a theme. This month, Maxwell’s mentor Chiwetel received the prestigious NAACP award for his Outstanding Directing in a Motion Picture.

Today at African Leadership Academy, Maxwell is often found not only flexing his acting muscles with his peers in the Ubuntu Theatre Troupe on campus but also behind the camera documenting events as he aspires to pursue a path in film directing. Like many ALA students, Maxwell is inspired by the arts and looks forward to telling more African stories through film. 

Do you know of a young leader in your community who has the perseverance and determination to drive change across the world? Nominate them for our two-year Diploma Program today.