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Lifting Up Stories Of Progress: Hope and Hustle in the Kibera Slum

Christine Heenan — Former Senior Vice President

Kibera, about four miles outside of Nairobi, Kenya, is the largest urban slum in all of Africa. About the size of New York’s Central Park, it is estimated that somewhere between 700,000 and 1 million people live within Kibera’s tin-roofed, mud-caked structures, and travel its rutted, ravaged byways and narrow dirt roads. (The 2009 government census estimates are much lower, at less than 200,000).

It is a remarkable place, and to me emblematic of both the challenge and promise of a growing, rapidly developing Africa.

I spent the morning touring Kibera recently with the team from “Shining Hope for Communities”, short-handed as SHOFCO, the education and community development non-profit started in 2004 by the irrepressible Kennedy Odede. Kennedy’s family moved from their rural village to Nairobi when he was two years old, but his parents had neither the education nor training to find sustained work, and they wound up on the streets of Kibera. He taught himself to read from scraps of tossed newspapers, and by age 15 – inspired by the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – he started SHOFCO with, as he puts it, “passion, 20 cents, and a soccer ball.”

Best known for its work in girls’ education, and specifically for its high-performing girls’ school that sits in the heart of Kibera, SHOFCO has expanded its reach and services, and has become a sort of community scaffolding: slowly, methodically strengthening the governing systems, civic dialogue, infrastructure and economic prospects of Kibera’s 16 sub-villages and their residents.

Lifting up success stories can actually change the pace and course of Africa’s development.

SHOFCO’s footprint is everywhere. My Rockefeller Foundation colleagues and I visited their one-room library, jammed with students studying everything from geometry to Swahili to English grammar during their school break. We stopped into a SHOFCO computer lab that taught the basics of email and internet use for searching and applying for jobs. We spent time in a SHOFCO-backed sewing collective that recently opened an online shop to sell its bright fabric notebooks and shopping bags on Etsy. We saw the aerial water distribution system that SHOFCO brought into Kibera, providing less expensive, more reliable fresh water to residents and greatly reducing the influence of mafia-style cartels that previously governed the distribution and pricing of drinking water.

Photo credit: Engage for The Rockefeller Foundation

If its girls’ school was SHOFCO’s first and most celebrated chapter, it sees “SUN” – the SHOFCO Urban Network – as its next and perhaps most transformative one. SUN provides an organizing mechanism for slum residents to band together to tackle issues in their community; prioritize economic development, safety and health initiatives that will make the biggest difference; and drive community-led solutions for local development.  SUN now works in nine urban slum areas across Kenya’s major cities of Nairobi, Mombasa, and Kisumu. Their members engage with government and advocate for community needs, and train members on how to form savings and loan groups and gain access to other economic resources like credit and micro-life insurance.

It’s easy to take in the challenges Kibera residents face every day and feel overwhelmed; reinforcing my own earlier misimpressions of the word “slum.” If one chooses to see it as a place of squalor, disease, danger and degradation, you can find that in Kibera:  its muddy streams choked to a trickle amidst mountains of plastics and other trash; the cars or motorcycles barreling dangerously close to pedestrians, including toddlers; the lack of sanitation or waste management that leaves plastic bags of human waste strewn most everywhere you go; the smoke from dirty cook stoves; the rough justice administered curbside when a mentally ill man tries to assault a young girl on the street.

But that’s not the whole story, nor is it the most important story.  Look closer, or look with a different perspective, and here’s what you’ll also see:  Tight-knit families in which older siblings keep close watch on younger ones as they run and play outside, while one or the other parent works within earshot.  Budding young athletes in brightly colored uniforms playing hard-fought soccer while fans and friends cheer on the sidelines, much like you’d see in Boston, or Bonn, or Brisbane.  A self-organized “people’s parliament,” whose participatory approach to budgeting and governance brings to mind the town meetings of old New England, but with far greater focus on gender parity and the inclusion of young people. Students approaching their classes with gratitude and their teachers with respect and admiration.  And you’d see – and feel – the palpable energy and ambition in the entrepreneurs selling everything from fried samosas to buckets of charcoal to fresh produce, determined to improve their prospects and shape their future. What Kennedy calls “the hope and hustle.”

A recent article by Joe Studwell of the Overseas Development Institute advances a theory that Africa’s development has lagged other parts of the world due to the lack of continent-level role models: what economists refer to as “positive demonstration or neighbourhood effects.” “Put simply,” Studwell writes, “these concepts suggest that people and governments follow and copy each other, encouraging virtuous and vicious development cycles in different regions.” His takeaway: Lifting up success stories can actually change the pace and course of Africa’s development.

Visiting Kibera inspires one to expand on this theory, or rather, to shrink it:  we needn’t just look at African countries like Rwanda and Ethiopia, whose successes can serve as shining examples for other countries on the continent to emulate. We should look within countries, and within communities, and bring attention to the interventions that – with some sunlight and attention – can also grow, spread, and serve as role models for hastening progress.  Kibera’s vibrancy, self-betterment, and its “hope and hustle” would be a great place to start.

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