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.
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.
In your story, both Tabitha and Salim immediately impressed you, and you built an organization around their vision for their own communities. What, do you think, you sensed about them in those very fist meetings?
Tabitha and Salim cut through the [surface] and said, “Listen, don’t come in here thinking you’re going to be able to bring solutions to a place like this. You need to recognize that you’re a student and at a deep level, what you’re doing is extractive.” Salim’s big thing was, “You’re going to walk away with research, and what’s the community going to get in return?” Tabitha really confronted me by saying, “I’ve got a solution. Here’s the information I know that you don’t and wouldn’t have access to.”
Actually, that’s one striking thing about your book. Your book is about a foreigner overseeing a local project, but the white protagonist here – you – doesn’t ride in and save the slum.
What I wanted to do initially was really tell the story of this place and some of the people in it, an extraordinary story that could hopefully inspire others. I had a pretty long manuscript and pitched it twice – nine years ago and six years ago. I didn’t get any replies from agents and editors. The second time around, I was so frustrated I just went back to a couple of the agents and tried to find one who would speak to me about this. Her advice was a kick in the teeth. One, she didn’t think “another book on Africa” would reach a mainstream audience, but two and more importantly in her mind, I had an essential flaw in my narrative structure – that I was missing from it. Yet the whole intent is really to recognize heroes who are often not celebrated, not to create another white knight in people’s consciousness.
It almost upset me – it still does in some ways, and I think it was something that really upset Salim – this sort of celebration of outsiders coming in to do “charity” and in some ways being seen as sort of the selfless saviors, when organizations that actually develop that type of cult of personality often failed, and if they didn’t fail, they were really ineffective. At the end of the day you have to work with local leaders, and it’s possible for them to really drive systemic change within places that may seem hopeless from the outside.
The final version of your book is a memoir, blending the story of your work in Kibera and your time as a Marine in Iraq. What did writing this book teach you about the interrelationship of those two parts of your life?
But before I started the writing in earnest, I still had this impression that I had been able to successfully compartmentalize both. What I realized, in the deep reflection that happens when you go through the process of writing a book like this, is that the compartments really are figments of our imagination. There was far more overlap – and clashes – between these two experiences than I had realized as I was going through them. Two in particular.
One area [is] where Kibera really helped inform my military experience, and where the military could really learn from effective non-governmental (NGO) or community-based organizations. [In] the military, one of our greatest challenges is our lack of continuity. When we go on deployment and we’re there for six to twelve months, it's a completely foreign environment, and by the time you really understand what’s going on and who’s who, you’re leaving. Also, our ability to listen to others, to evaluate local priorities and then to create a strategy for both providing security and enabling development so that we can transition out of a place like Iraq or Afghanistan – we don’t do this. As I was fumbling along in Kibera as a college student, I was also learning the skill of listening. It was something that I think helped me tremendously in a context like Iraq.
At a certain level, these two experiences are incompatible with each other. One is an instrument of violence, and the other is trying to prevent violence. I think some readers actually have found some frustrations with the lack of resolution around that. Even though these two worlds inform each other, there still is this lingering incompatibility, at least as I see it. But I think that’s part of the reality.
Many people in humanitarian and development work have long been saying that projects need to be more locally focused, but little action seems to have followed. Why has Carolina for Kibera succeeded, where it has, at letting locals lead the way? What are the challenges of trying to support that leadership model?
We wrestle with the balance every day in our organizations, and we tilt back and forth between the amount of involvement and influence our small team in the United States has on the organization as it operates on a day to day basis in Kibera. It’s challenging because in the US, we’re still generating most of the resources for the organizations, so there’s a natural power dynamic that comes along with that, and which is exacerbated when you are in extremely resource-deprived settings such as Kibera. What we navigate is a gigantic chasm of cultures and expectations and resources and knowledge, and between the United States, Chapel Hill, and our team immediately on the ground in Kenya.
First, our current ED in Kenya has a vision of diversifying the revenue so that half or more of the resources are raised in Kenya by 2015. The second is to do a better job at nurturing and developing the leadership within the organization so that in four to five years, we’ve got a medical doctor who grew up and was part of Carolina for Kibera [working in our clinic]. We’re not that far away; we’ve got a couple members of CfK who are in medical school now.
The third piece, which is really the most challenging, is the communication across cultural lines. I don’t think there’s really any easy way around this other than taking a long view. The infrastructure hasn’t improved in Kibera; the real changes we’ve seen are in the lives of individuals.
Jina Moore is a Monitor correspondent.