Defend Truth


Kibera: Hope and human dignity rising in the slums of Africa


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, a former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and is a board member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

“I am sick and tired of my family members dying of hunger and diarrhea because we are so poor. In Kibera, people are desensitised to death. Living is the exception. We know we are invisible to the people who live in the suburbs of Nairobi and have jobs and nice houses. We should all have the right to live decent lives, have clinics with nurses, doctors and medicines, schools where our children can learn.”

I am in Kibera, reputed to be one of the largest slums in Africa. I sit with an earnest group of young activists. They don’t want charity and self-pity. They do not want any handouts from government or donors. They are building their own pathways out of poverty and marginalisation.

“We should feel safe to walk in safety and not have our women and children raped or murdered. That is our right to human dignity. We will not bend our backs like slaves anymore. We will stand up straight and speak truth to power even if we are killed by these predatory elites who control power.”

In meeting after meeting I see the true Africa rising. Not in the fancy ballrooms with crystal chandeliers where the rich and famous rub shoulders, drink champagne and eat canapés. I see Africa rising in villages and slums across the continent, where I meet grassroots activists.

I am with Kennedy Odede, the founder of Shining Hope, a grassroots movement in Kibera that has brought hope to a slum of over a million people who had been abandoned by those in power. I ask him how he began and I learn one of the most remarkable stories of activism in Africa. “For most of my life I have lived here in Kibera slum. As the eldest of eight children, I knew poverty and hunger before I learnt to walk or read. My parents were so poor. There was no food in our home. I became a street child at the age of ten.”

As we walk through the slum to visit the projects Shining Hope has created, I am struck by the legitimacy and respect of residents. I had been warned that no-one from the outside goes into Kibera without security. For me, walking with grassroots activists has always been the best protection. I probe further. How did you come to set up Shining Hope?

With Kennedy outside the SHOFCO Marcus Garvey Library

He is coy. “I dreamed about changing my community. In 2004 I had a job in a factory earning $1 for ten hours of work. It was hard and dangerous labour. I walked hours to work because I could not afford the taxi fare. One day I came home from the job to see one of my good friends had been shot by the police. A week later, another hanged himself in a tiny room. I couldn’t take it anymore. I took my savings of about US$ 20 cents and bought a soccer ball and started Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO).”

So how does a soccer ball change the community, I ask?

“We started with soccer and street theatre. My friends thought it was crazy – they said we needed a donor to start an NGO. I said, ‘This is not an NGO, this is a movement.’ I started to talk to the gangs. Through sport they became our strongest supporters. Our soccer team excelled. We won prizes. We started to have a big following. Residents were proud of us. And parents loved us because their children would be off the streets and drugs and criminal gangs.”

We arrive at the Marcus Garvey Library. We step through the metal door and I see a room with tables. There are close to thirty people seated, all engrossed in books, magazines or papers. It is so silent one can hear a pin drop. They are of all ages. The librarian shows me the records. Every one of the over 40,000 SHOFCO members has a smart card. It is scanned when they enter and when they leave any SHOFCO facility. It is an accurate, real-time record of all visits.

We leave to the next project. All along the way we meet entrepreneurs, shoemakers, airtime sellers who have been helped to set up their own businesses through a SHOFCO micro-credit system that has pushed out the unscrupulous moneylenders.

We arrive at a clinic for lactating and pregnant mothers. The same smart card records all visits, measures the weight of babies and gives advice on breastfeeding, immunisation and HIV/AIDS. They even have their own blood testing laboratory onsite. I ask Kennedy where he got these ideas from. Extracting information is like a visit to the dentist. “I was lucky. I was noticed and offered a scholarship at Wesleyan University. I graduated but came straight back to Kibera. This is my home. I wanted to plough back into the community that had given me hope and opportunity.”

I meet a group of young workers and volunteers for a traditional lunch of skumawiki (a green leaf similar to kale) and ugali (maize bread) with a chicken stew. It is delicious.

In a SHOFCO school in Kibera

I ask them what keeps them awake at night. What are the challenges and hopes for Kenya?

“Our biggest worry is tribalism. It is weapon of the predatory elites. They use the poor to fight their battles. They throw pennies to us and become rich by dividing us. A poor person is too busy scrounging income to put food on the table every day.” It sparks a heated debate. Will the discovery of oil in Turkana region in the north of Kenya cause more ethnic conflict? Is this Kenya’s resource curse?

I sense a pride here. These are not young people who are going to accept the continuing corruption and mediocrity that keeps African people poor even though we walk on gold, diamonds, platinum and oil. This is a sample of the real Africa rising. They are the spear of the demographic dividend that is coming. The fact that half the billion people on our continent are under 20 and that by 2050 our population will double and 70% will be under 25.

I meet a group of schoolchildren doing a history lesson on Steve Biko and Martin Luther King. They are wide-eyed when they hear I worked with Nelson Mandela and that I actually listened to Steve Biko when I was 15. I meet a group of volunteers who are doing outreach work on preventing HIV and teenage pregnancies. “Everything is political. We need to self-organise. We need to free our minds. We need to unite our communities. We need to create our own livelihoods,” says Kennedy.

With Kennedy Odede and a meeting of activists in one of Nairobi’s slums.

I probe the wave of violence in Kenya. “Terrorism is a global reality, and for me as a Kenyan. Last year we saw the horrific siege of the Westgate mall. Today is the grenade attacks this morning,” says Kennedy. “Yet in many ways, growing up in Nairobi, I was always in the midst of terror. As a boy living in extreme poverty in Kibera, one of Africa’s largest slums, I learned early on that I was disposable, that human life is not equally valued. Life expectancy in Kibera is estimated at 30 years, compared with 54 in the rest of Kenya.”

Driven by innovation and entrepreneurial energy, Shining Hope became the largest grassroots organisation in the slum. I feel that these are the real leaders of Africa; empowering them will lead to the real Africa rising; and to a future of peace and shared prosperity.

“We must capture the potential of urban youth before they are led to believe that the path of violence is their only option. Instead of investing billions of dollars on drones, let’s focus on creating economic opportunities for our youth and providing basic and essential services like health care and education,” he concludes. I cannot disagree with such a precise reasoning.

My question is whether the current political and economic elites in Africa are listening. DM

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