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Carolina for Kibera founder Rye Barcott talks about his nonprofit and his memoir "It Happened On the Way to War"

"It Happened On the Way to War" tells how college student Rye Barcott founded Kenya-based nonprofit Carolina for Kibera for $26.

By Jina Moore / September 27, 2011

Rye Barcott was a student at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, when he got the idea for a nonprofit that would help Kenyans living in the infamous Kibera slum to get resources to implement their own ideas.

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It was mere chance that former Marine and non-profit founder Rye Barcott ended up spending a summer doing research in Kibera, the biggest slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Inspired by a determined woman and a dedicated man who lived and worked in the slum, Barcott co-founded Carolina for Kibera, a grassroots non-profit organization that supports locally inspired development solutions – an organization he got off the ground even during tours in Iraq, Bosnia, and the Horn of Africa.

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Barcott’s memoir, It Happened on the Way to War (Bloomsbury), documents his journeys as a peacemaker and as a soldier. The Christian Science Monitor spoke with Barcott by phone about what Kenya taught him about waging war, building peace and listening across cultures.

This Q&A has been condensed and edited.

In a sense, this book, maybe even your journey, all begins with Tabitha Festo. How did you meet her?

It begins and ends with Tabitha, which was very deliberate. She’s the heroine of it, and Salim [Mohamed] is really the hero of it. Tabitha was basically a neighbor of mine when I spent half a summer in Kibera as a college student, in 2000. I was doing was a research project on youth – to be honest, I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing. I knew I was going into the Marines, so I wanted to have a better understanding of ethnic violence. Tabitha heard I was going around and asking young people, largely young men, about their lives and about their ambitions. Tabitha confronted me and said, “Hey, you’re asking these young people about their problems but you never bothered to ask me. So sit down, I’m going to tell you a little bit about my life.”

She also asked you for something.

She proposed to give her 2,000 shillings, at the time the equivalent of about $26. I had made a habit of not giving out money, in part for my own security and in part based on my own vague recognition that as little as $26 in resource-deprived settings can cause more problems. I also had a concern about creating or contributing dependency.

So I made a habit of not doing it, but she asked me for this directly, and she had a plan. Her plan was to sell veggies – to purchase vegetables in Kibera and sell them across town in a Somali community, where she could undercut the competiton and where the government didn’t crack down on people for not having vendor’s licenses, which cost 5,000 shillings ($65) at the time. Tabitha had a business plan so to speak but I didn’t think about it those terms; I was just impressed by the conviction in her voice. I was leaving a few days later so I decided to hand her this 2,000 shillings. At that point I didn’t expect to see her again.

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