Opinion | This Kenyan slum has something to teach the world

NAIROBI, Kenya — Here in the Kibera slum, life sometimes seems like a free-for-all. Residents steal electricity by connecting to overhead lines, children walk barefoot through sewage-filled alleyways, and people must sometimes dodge “flying toilets,” plastic bags that residents use as toilets and then dispose of by dumping them in one direction or another.

However, this is an uplifting slum. Against all odds, Kibera is also a place of hope and offers a lesson in bottom-up development that the world should learn from.

The story begins with a boy whose single mother, who was 15 when she gave birth, named him Kennedy because she wanted him to be like an American president she had heard of. Little Kennedy Odede did not attend formal school, and at age 10 he ran away from a violent stepfather and ended up sleeping rough.

Kennedy taught himself to read and was inspired by a biography of Nelson Mandela that a researcher shared with him. Enthusiastic and charismatic, Kennedy later formed a self-help association in Kibera called Shining Hope for Communities, better known as SHOFCO.

an american Wesleyan University student Jessica Posner volunteered at SHOFCO and later persuaded Wesleyan to accept Kennedy as a full-scholarship student, despite the fact that she had never attended an actual elementary school. Jessica and Kennedy fell in love and got married when he graduated.

One of SHOFCO’s first projects was the Kibera School for Girls, which recruited some of the poorest girls from the slum. Their parents were sometimes illiterate, and a fifth of those girls had been sexually assaulted. However, the girls knew they were special and with intensive tutoring they became star students, outperforming boys in Kenya’s expensive private schools.

I am an old friend of Kennedy’s and have been following his work since my first visit a dozen years ago. A girl I knew then, when she was in the second grade, is now studying at Columbia University. Her former classmates are studying at four other American universities, as well as universities in Kenya.

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Let’s just acknowledge that development is difficult, particularly in the rapidly growing urban slums around the world. Billions of dollars are invested in the poorest countries, and Haiti and South Sudan see fleets of expensive white SUVs driven by aid organizations; what is missing is long-term economic development. International aid keeps children alive, which is no small feat. But it has been less successful in transforming hot spots.

That’s where SHOFCO is intriguing as an alternative model. Its grassroots empowerment approach has similarities to BRAC, a Bangladesh-based development organization that I consider one of the most effective aid groups in the world, and to Fonkoze, a similar local nonprofit in Haiti.

“Development has been part of imperialism; You know that better than anyone because you’re from the United States or Europe,” Kennedy told me. He thinks that international aid is sometimes ineffective in part because it feels imposed from outside.

SHOFCO has spread through low-income communities in Kenya and now has 2.4 million members, making it one of the largest grassroots organizations in Africa. Provides clean water, fights sexual assault, runs a credit union, trains people to start small businesses, runs libraries and internet hotspots, mobilizes voters to pressure politicians to provide services to the slums, runs public health campaigns, and does 1,000 other things.

I believe it is successful because it exemplifies a partnership: local leadership combined with confidence in international best practice. SHOFCO, for example, adopted cervical cancer prevention and deworming programs that reflect the best international knowledge, and these were accepted by the local population in part because they trusted Kennedy.

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I was wondering how scalable SHOFCO was: was it dependent on Kennedy’s charisma, making it difficult to replicate in other slums? No, the model has actually spread smoothly across the country, and other Kenyan slums have just happened to have untapped Kennedys of their own.

I often write about poverty, and while the subject can be depressing at times, I also regularly find inspiration.

One woman I met on this visit to Kibera is Lauren Odhiambo, 23, a SHOFCO member whose father died when she was young. She shares a two-room shack with six family members and the occasional rat. The house has no kitchen or running water, and the night requires some planning: the neighborhood bathroom is closed from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

His mom earns $70 a month washing other people’s clothes. But Lauren joined SHOFCO and took a computer class that led her to a job that pays $250 a month. Lauren has used that income to work at the University of Nairobi, and this year she will become the first person in her family with a university degree. After graduation, she hopes to find a job that pays $400 a month.

This wouldn’t have happened without SHOFCO, he said, and I asked him why, expecting him to talk about the computer skills he learned. Instead, she made a broader point: The show taught her that slum dwellers are just as good as anyone else.

“I acquired not only skills,” he said. “I gained confidence.” As for the ongoing challenges he sees around him in Kibera, he added: “It’s up to us to change it.”

Kibera still needs decent sewers, schools and roads, but Lauren’s success is a reminder of what a grassroots organization can achieve against all odds, even in the most desolate slums. That fills me with hope. Bright hope.

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