This Kenyan slum has something to teach the world
NAIROBI, Kenya — Here in the Kibera slum, life sometimes seems like everyone’s game. Residents steal electricity by tapping into overhead lines, children walk barefoot through lanes dripping with sewage, and people sometimes have to avoid “flying toilets” – plastic bags that residents use as toilets and then get rid of by throwing them in one direction or another.
Still, it’s an uplifting slum. Against all odds, Kibera is also a place of hope and offers a lesson in bottom-up development that the world should learn from.
The story begins with a boy whose single mother – aged 15 when she gave birth – named him Kennedy, because she wanted him to be like an American president she had heard of. Little Kennedy Odede didn’t attend formal school, and at the age of 10 he ran away from an abusive stepfather and ended up sleeping rough.
Kennedy taught himself to read and was inspired by a biography of Nelson Mandela that a researcher shared with him. The rambunctious and charismatic Kennedy then formed a self-help association in Kibera called Shining Hope for Communities, better known as SHOFCO.
An American A Wesleyan University student, Jessica Posner, volunteered at SHOFCO and then persuaded Wesleyan to accept Kennedy as a full scholarship student, even though he had never even attended a proper elementary school. Jessica and Kennedy fell in love and married when he graduated.
One of SHOFCO’s first projects was the Kibera Girls’ School, which recruited some of the poorest girls in the slum. Their parents were sometimes illiterate and a fifth of these little girls had been sexually assaulted. Yet the girls knew they were special, and through intensive tutoring, they became star pupils, surpassing pupils in Kenya’s expensive private schools.
I’m an old friend of Kennedy’s and have followed his work since my first visit a dozen years ago. A girl I met then, when she was in second grade, is now studying at Columbia University. His former classmates are studying at four other American universities as well as Kenyan universities.
Let’s just recognize that development is difficult, especially in rapidly growing urban slums around the world. Billions of dollars are poured into the poorest countries, and in Haiti and South Sudan you see fleets of expensive white SUVs driven by aid organizations; what is missing is long-term economic development. International aid keeps children alive, which is no small feat. But he was less successful in transforming troubled places.
This is where SHOFCO is intriguing as an alternative model. Its grassroots empowerment approach shares similarities with BRAC, a Bangladesh-based development organization that I consider to be one of the most effective aid groups in the world, and with Fonkoze, a local non-profit organization similar in Haiti.
“Development has been part of imperialism – you know that better than anyone because you come from America or Europe,” Kennedy told me. He thinks that international aid is sometimes ineffective partly because it feels imposed from outside.
SHOFCO has spread to low-income communities in Kenya and now has 2.4 million members, making it one of the largest grassroots organizations in Africa. It provides clean water, fights sexual assault, runs a credit union, helps people start small businesses, runs libraries and internet hotspots, mobilizes voters to lobby politicians for them to deliver services to slums, organize public health campaigns and do 1,000 other things.
It succeeds, I think, because it exemplifies partnership: local leadership coupled with the use of international best practices. SHOFCO, for example, has adopted deworming and cervical cancer prevention programs that reflect the best international knowledge, and these have been accepted by the local population in part because they trusted Kennedy. .
I had wondered how scalable SHOFCO was: did it depend on Kennedy’s charisma, making it hard to replicate in other slums? No, the model actually scaled smoothly across the country – and other Kenyan slums turned out to have their own untapped Kennedys.
I often write about poverty, and while the topic can sometimes be depressing, I also regularly find reasons to be inspired.
One woman I met on this visit to Kibera is Lauren Odhiambo, 23, a member of SHOFCO whose father died when she was young. She shares a two-room cabin with six family members and the occasional rat. The house has no kitchen or running water, and the evening requires a bit of organization: The neighborhood toilets are closed from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
His mother earns $70 a month washing other people’s clothes. But Lauren joined SHOFCO and took a computer course that led to a job that pays $250 a month. Lauren used the income to work her way through the University of Nairobi, and this year she will become the first person in her family to graduate from college. After graduating, she hopes to find a job paying $400 a month.
It wouldn’t have happened without SHOFCO, she said, and I asked her why, expecting her to talk about the computer skills she learned. Instead, she made a larger point: the program taught her that slum dwellers are as good as anyone else.
“I learned not just skills,” she said. “I gained confidence.” As for the ongoing challenges she sees around her in Kibera, she added, “It’s up to us to change it.
Kibera still needs sewers, schools and decent roads, but Lauren’s success is a reminder of what a grassroots organization can accomplish against the odds in even the dirtiest slum. It fills me with hope. Bright hope.
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