When Rye Barcott, author of the recently released, It Happened on the Way to War: A Marine’s Path to Peace, founded the organization Carolina for Kibera (CFK) he was still an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). Receiving his Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) training at the time, Barcott did not have the resume of your average development worker. But that is what CFK is all about—seeing the potential for leadership where most do not.
The key to the success of the now 10 year old organization, says Barcott, is that it is completely driven by community members. Participatory development is the cornerstone of the organization’s foundation, and every program is developed with the goal of it being completely locally owned for long term sustainability.
CFK is based in Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya—one of the largest slums in sub-Saharan Africa. Working to prevent violence and conflict, the organization empowers young slum dwellers to become community leaders. Kibera has anywhere from 200,000 to 500,000 people and is home to ethnic and religious violence as well as poverty, pollution and overcrowding. Over 50 percent of its population is under the age of 15, and almost no one has access to education or health services. Less than half of the youth living in the slum ever begin secondary school.
Barcott first visited Kibera to research ethnic violence for a paper he was writing for his undergraduate degree. He hoped that in depth and first-hand knowledge of conflict would prepare him for the kinds of situations he would be faced with on the ground during his career in the marines. But once he was living in Kibera, he found it difficult to remain a passive observer.
“What I saw when I first went to Kibera as a student, was that there was an abundance of talent, but a total lack of opportunities,” says Barcott. “And I met people who were already trying to make a difference but who just needed a little support.”
One of these people was Salim Mohamed, a young man about the same age as Barcott who was running a youth sports program in Methare, a neighboring slum. Salim had grown up alone on the streets of Nairobi after his parents died. When Barcott met him, Salim was using soccer as a leadership development program for young kids growing up in the streets of the slum. “Salim basically said, ‘you get a thesis out of being here but what are you going to actually do about the violence and poverty?’” says Barcott.
The two men decided to start a similar program in Kibera. And CFK was born in 2001. “The important part was that the work was already happening,” says Barcott. “Salim didn’t need me to come in and tell him what Kibera needed, but we were able to work together to develop this program to help address some of the ethnic tension that was building in the area.”
Soon after that Barcott also teamed up with Tabitha Atieno Festo, a registered nurse and resident of Kibera to establish a small medical clinic with a small grant from CFK and the money Festo had earned selling vegetables the previous year. The clinic now provides primary healthcare and youth-friendly services in partnership with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to roughly 40,000 Kibera residents per year.
In addition to the Sports Association and the Tabitha Clinic, CFK also supports the Binti Pamoja (Daughters United) Center, a reproductive health and women’s rights center for 11 to 18 year-old girls, and Taka ni Pato (TNP), a collaboration with three other NGOs in Nairobi that creates jobs for several youth groups that collect trash from homes in the community for recycling, compost and making crafts for commercial sale.
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