As a student at the University of North Carolina, Rye Barcott received a BA in Peace, War, and Defense and also studied Swahili. The impetus behind this interest was partly the civil war in Rwanda and the violence brought upon youth by their peers. “I remember being glued to the TV and wondering how it could happen,” Barcott explains. When he won a prestigious fellowship from his university in 1999, he chose to study youth culture in another East African country, Kenya-specifically the slum of Kibera, a 620-acre conglomeration of huts that somewhere between 600,000 and 1.3 million people call home.
During the summer of 2000 when he lived in Kibera doing research, Barcott came to an unexpected conclusion: the non-governmental agencies that are supposed to provide emergency relief to inhabitants of some of the world’s poorest places, like Kibera, are very ineffectual. Instead of providing help after a disaster, as is too often the case, he came to believe that NGO’s should help prevent conflicts. They should also include residents in their organizations, something that rarely happens and which would empower local people. With regards to his study of youth, Barcott also saw firsthand the lack of positive outlets for their energy, one of the few exceptions being a sports association he saw at another slum.
As a result of his experience in Kibera, Barcott returned to North Carolina to form Carolina for Kibera (http://cfk.unc.edu), an all-volunteer effort run by American and Kenyan youth. CFK’s primary mission is to prevent ethno-religious violence by using sports to promote youth leadership, ethnic and gender cooperation, and community development. In just two short years, the non-profit organization has established a youth sports association, a girls’ center, a medical clinic, and a nursery school in Kibera with the help of small grants from the Ford Foundation and the World Bank. Each of these projects is led by Kibera residents.
Today, Rye Barcott is a 23-year old officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is currently working on a book entitled Kibera Blood. Following is his account of his home in Kibera.
KEDJA YA OMOSH by Rye Barcott
My kedja is located midway between the tired Uganda railroad track and the metallic gray Ngong River in Gatuikira village. When it is dry and there is daylight, it takes me about seven minutes to get there from the main road. When muddy and dark it can take twice as long.
The slum is an unplanned labyrinth of mud houses and sharp, rusty iron rooftops and alleyways. I know over four ways to get to my place, and I vary my paths regularly. My house is relatively small – 8 by 8 feet – and expensive (1,200 Sh or $16 per month). It’s expensive because it has desirable things: electricity, a cement floor, access to a pit latrine, relative safety. The place is located in the middle of a compound of 14 houses, which are separated by a three-foot cement central alleyway from which waste water drains out and clothes hang drying overhead.
Less desirable is the fact that the walls and roof are just pieces of paper-thin mabati (corrugated iron). This, combined with the fact that I live in a valley, means two things. First, it is cold at night, terribly cold. I use three blankets and sleep in a sweatshirt. But every morning without fail I wake up shivering in a cold sweat around 4 A.M. My early rise has less to do with the cold and more to do with the second disadvantage of this kedja: I live next to two families with babies that wail a lot.
More than 80 people live in the compound of 14 houses. My neighbors are mostly “saved” Christians. Purposefully, I don’t know them well, and they know me only as Omosh. During daylight hours I am friendly to everyone. After dusk, however, my demeanor changes abruptly. At 9 P.M. I walk through the pock-marked alleyways with teaming masses of people, passing hundreds of women trying to make a last shilling selling dinner staples: sukuma wiki, ugali, roasted fish. Most compounds in the ghetto lock by 10:30 P.M. By 11 P.M. virtually no one can be seen outside. Even the slum bars, such as ‘Matope’ (Mud) and ‘Ghetto-Love,’ which thump with Lingala rap music as early as 6 A.M., close by midnight. It is at these times, between 9-12 P.M., that I return home.
I walk fast and loudly. Thugs usually strike during the first two weeks of the month, after people get paid. So at these times I sometimes I carry a stick with a sharp point on its end. I greet no one and am poised to attack on the slightest provocation. I pass slum dogs slurping in mud gutters. Their ribcages protrude from their gaunt skin. Sometimes they howl to the starlight like coyotes and fight each other over access to pits of waste. Every time I reach home I am covered in sweat. If the compound is locked, I pound loudly on the gate repeatedly, sometimes for as long as 5 to 10 minutes. Eventually a neighbour rouses from sleep and grudgingly comes out to open the pad-locked mabati gate.
Adjacent to my compound is a pool hall (20 ‘bob’/game – 33 cents, loser pays) and a movie hall (10 bob a pop). Last night featured a Bruce Lee flick. The movie hall, a 10 by 12 foot room with benches, accommodated over 100 people who sat sweating and staring at a 10 inch TV on a make-shift stand.
Up from the movie hall is a rancid gutter of sewage that welcomes you to one of the main “roads” – a 7-foot wide artery for thousands of pedestrians. After you jump the sump there is the Mungemo Motherland Hotel, where I often eat breakfast. Hotels here are for eating only. Breakfast consists of chai and deep-fried bread called mandazi, each of which costs 5 bob. The chai is saturated with sugar. I enjoy dipping my mandazi into it and then taking a large bite. Instantly, my shivering body begins to calm and warm from inside out.
At the Mungemo Motherland Hotel there are signs that I enjoy reading every morning: “If God Is For Us Who Can Be Against Us;” “Our Customers Are Special, Service Is Free; Smoking Cigarettes Is Bad For Your Health;” “Kukopesha Ni Kupoteza Wateja” (To Give on Credit is to Lose Customers); “Behold, Now is the Accepted Time, Now is the Day of Salvation.”
I like to sit on a bench next to a window with a wooden door. I stare at the fields of maize on the other side of the Ngong River. The fields, shambas, run up to a fortress of posh houses in a place called Langata. As the sun rises, its light reflects off multi-coloured shards of glass cemented on the thick walls of the houses on the other side of the valley.