Transforming Kibera From the Inside

One small step. In relation to the 8,000 miles I traveled to get there, that step forward was infinitesimally small. I took it cautiously, knowing its importance, and entered Kibera.
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One small step. In relation to the 8,000 miles I traveled to get there, that step forward was infinitesimally small. I took it cautiously, knowing its importance, and entered Kibera.

Home to more than 200,000 people, Kibera is a one-square-mile slum that rests on a hill in Nairobi, Kenya. Three months before I arrived, Kibera unraveled in post-election violence: entire neighborhoods burned down, hundreds of people killed, and tens of thousands of residents displaced as tensions between ethnic groups reached an all-time high.

With that one step I crossed the proverbial Rubicon -- an impromptu sewage trench -- exposing myself to a world of conflict and peace, extreme poverty and prosperity, inequality and equity, corruption and honor, and desperation and hope. For the residents of Kibera, daily life represented the constant struggle between these dichotomies.

My time in Kibera allowed me to experience both poles of each dichotomy. Working with Carolina for Kibera, a new breed of nongovernmental organizations based on participatory development, opened my eyes to some of the world's most pressing challenges.

Carolina for Kibera's participatory development model exemplifies a new age of grassroots change. Based on the concept that solutions to poverty are only viable and sustainable if those affected drive development, Carolina for Kibera has been extremely successful as an agent of change in one of the world's harshest environments. At the heart of CFK are not foreign development experts but local residents of Kibera who, with the help from outside resources, pioneered change from within their community.

Participatory models across the globe are demonstrating unprecedented success. Both Barack Obama's grassroots presidential campaign structure and the Tea Party movement have translated popular sentiments into political power. New counterinsurgency methods that aim to protect and support local populations have been widely successful in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, in contrast to al Qaeda's trope that militant fundamentalist Islamic jihad is necessary to overthrow the tyranny of Arab oppressors, it has been largely peaceful protests and popular uprisings that have swept across the Middle East and ousted dictatorial regimes.

Upon returning home from Kibera, I wanted to do more. I had briefly been part of something bigger than myself, and I desired to remain a positive force in the world.

I found my calling in the United States Foreign Service. Every day, American diplomats engage with foreign governments and local communities for the dual purposes of promoting US interests and supporting the world's populace in its quest for freedom and prosperity. One year after first crossing that open sewage trench that marked the northern entrance of Kibera, I received a fellowship to enter the Foreign Service and pursue my aspirations to support positive change from within local communities.

CFK continues to be a transformative force in Kibera. Just ten years ago, a college student named Rye Barcott traveled to Kibera on a fellowship to study ethnic conflict in the East African slum. Rye met Salim Mohamed, a young community organizer from the neighboring Mathare slum who harnessed the power of soccer to bring together local youth and address the sectarian and health issues that they faced. Just before leaving, Rye provided $26 to Tabitha Fiesto, a widowed nurse and Kibera resident, to sell a local vegetable to more affluent communities in Nairobi.

These three individuals would join together to start Carolina for Kibera and transform Kibera from the inside. Salim used his community organizing skills to start a soccer league in Kibera that united youth together to have fun, give back to the community, and understand the complex issues that they faced. Tabitha accrued enough profits from selling vegetables over a year to open one of the few medical clinics within Kibera. And Rye worked tirelessly to raise the resources to support Salim and Tabitha in their quest for change, even as he deployed to the Horn of Africa, Bosnia, and Iraq as a Marine.

Tabitha passed away in 2004 after years of service to her community. Today, the Tabitha Clinic provides free primary healthcare to over 40,000 residents of Kibera every year. CFK's Youth Sports Association brings together over 5,000 young men and women to play soccer and address ethnic violence, youth unemployment, and public health in Kibera. New CFK initiatives include a reproductive health and women's rights center, a recycling and waste-management program to turn trash into cash, and an HIV/AIDS prevention program. In 2005, CFK was recognized as one of TIME Magazine's Heroes in Global Health.

CFK is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month with the release of a book by Rye Barcott that bridges his two forms of seemingly contradictory public service to our nation and the world. It Happened On the Way to War: A Marine's Path to Peace is the story of how Rye, Salim, and Tabitha built an organization that continues to be a positive force in Kibera. It is an account of how with the right kind of support, people in desperate places will take charge of their lives and create breathtaking change.

It Happened On the Way to War went on sale this week for $26, the same amount that Tabitha turned into a medical clinic for her community. So read the book, visit the website, and think about how you too can support local leaders in their quest for change.

Yaniv Barzilai is a senior Peace, War, and Defense major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Thomas R. Pickering Undergraduate Foreign Affairs Fellow with the US Department of State.

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