Looking for hope instead of an exit in a Kenyan slum

Kepha Ngito is working to ease ethnic and religious tensions in Kibera, the Nairobi slum that is a potential flash point ahead of Thursday's presidential election.

His parents thought he was crazy. With a good secondary education behind him, Kepha Ngito could have had his pick of jobs and escaped the grinding poverty of Kibera, the biggest slum in sub-Saharan Africa.

Instead, he stayed to start a charity helping other young people find work – and hope – in a shantytown of 1 million people crammed in an area about the size of Central Park.

"Our parents came to Nairobi looking for jobs. For them, Kibera is a platform for their search for a better life," says Mr. Ngito in the mud-brick building he calls home. "But this is our home. That's why we see the need for change."

Now, as Kenya lurches toward Thursday's presidential polls, his Kibera Community Youth Program (KCYP) has taken on new importance as it aims to ease the slum's religious and ethnic tensions, historically exploited by rival politicians in past elections to further their own ambitions and aims.

Already, local newspapers have been carrying daily reports from around the country of homes being looted, cars torched, and candidates attacked.

Since April, Ngito has been trying soothe these difference by building bridges among the more than 100 young people – of various backgrounds – involved in his youth program, which organizes theater projects, raises awareness about HIV/AIDS, records music that interweaves social messages, or simply puts on soccer matches.

He also offers job training to young people and helps them start businesses – an effort to ensure that Kibera's tough existence does not condemn them to a life of poverty, disease, and glue-sniffing.

Kibera is a microcosm of Kenyan society. It has a large Luo population drawn from the shores of Lake Victoria. Their representative, Raila Odinga, is the main challenger to President Mwai Kibaki – from the other dominant tribe, the Kikuyu – making Kibera a potential flash point for violence.

One of Ngito's colleagues admits a past as a rabble-rouser. Felic Oduor Otieno says he used to organize stone-throwing boys for politicians seeking office.

"They approach you and offer money for you to mobilize the youth for them," he says. "So I wasn't one of the ones throwing stones, but I was involved in bringing in the boys."

The presence of people like Mr. Otieno in the group is crucial to changing attitudes in Kibera, says Ngito. His program specifically targets disaffected ringleaders of ethnic gangs, bringing them into discussions that they would normally be kept out of, he adds. "The problems are often small but these people are often left on the outside of the solution. So if we can engage them, often these are easy problems to solve."

KCYP started five years ago with two of Ngito's friends.

"At first it was a struggle to convince our parents that we were a force for good," he says. "We were branded rebels because we walked in groups. Our parents thought we had wasted our time in school. They thought we were nuts."

Like many others who arrived in the slum from the countryside searching for work, Ngito's father found a job as a manual laborer in one of Nairobi's factories before his son was born.

As the eldest and brightest of six children, relatives rallied around to ensure that young Ngito had the best possible start in life. They helped his parents pay school bills, but the money ran out when it came to university.

"They were taking people with worse grades than us, but maybe their father was rich. We felt that injustice," says Ngito, who received a letter of acceptance for a placement that he wasn't able to accept.

His parents wanted Ngito to follow their example. A job – any job – might have paid enough to ease their son out of slum life. But Ngito's path, instead, has led him to stay in Kibera.

KCYP has recently attracted the attention of an international charity. Cafod, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, is funding its peace work with a $30,000 grant. Tom Onyango, Cafod's justice and peace program officer for East Africa, said the community roots of the KCYP and its energy made the funding decision easy.

"A relatively small amount of money has the potential to make a huge difference," he said. "Because the work is innovative and community-based it could reach out to a large number of people affected by conflict in the Nairobi slums."

But perhaps the biggest impact is a change in attitudes toward the shantytowns, which still have no official status with Kenya's government.

Ngito says his generation is the first to recognize Kibera as their home. For a generation born amid its mud paths and garbage piles, the slum is not a temporary stop, or a place to earn money before returning to their ancestral lands, as their parents thought.

"Our aim is not to escape this place," he says. "Our aim is to change this place."

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