Changing Kibera

 View of Kibera slum in Nairobi

Interested in development programs in the Third World? I've been meaning to write about a book that is a must read if you're wondering what can be done as a foreign volunteer. Call Me Unafraid came out last year. It's co-written by a former Wesleyan University student and a Kenyan community organizer that she met on a university program in Kenya.

They met in Kibera, Nairobi's infamous slum. It's a place that I've driven through on the recommendation of our Nairobi partner, the Kenya Voluntary Development Association. The extent of the slum is overwhelming. Most of it cannot be seen from a car. The density of construction leaves only narrow walkways. The authors of the book, Jessica Posner and Kennedy Odede take turns talking of how they met and what they were able to accomplish. Their work targets at-risk young girls in Kibera who have little or no educational opportunities and face the constant threat of abuse, unwanted pregnancy, HIV, malnutrition and crime.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the book, what works, what doesn't. The most important is one that we hear time and again: community involvement. Change cannot be imposed from the outside, it must come from within. The community must be invested in a projects success. Kennedy and Jessica start a school for girls with funds from outside, but they require parental or extended family involvment. 6 weeks per year volunteering at the school. 

Kennedy writes:

"My wariness about foreign NGOs came from seeing several organizations working in Kibera. Rather than building free clinics that were actually accessible to people, these outsiders built inefficient ones devoid of community leadership and dignity. The majority of "local" staff who were hired did not actually live in Kibera, and they looked down on and disparaged community members. I also saw how "free" schools built by Western organizations secretly charged fees, and local staff members secretly raised the prices and pocketed the money when donors got back on their planes." (p.162)

Kennedy provides the community connection, Jessica provides the Western connection, and they both provide endless commitment. These are the ingredients for success.

In addition to being a kind of instruction manual for development, the book also gives a vivid portrait of abject poverty, the failures of the West in solving the problem, and the crime and political instability that make progress so difficult in developing economies. One note: Their success would be hard to duplicate. Not every project will receive support from wealthy alumni, movie stars, large corporations. At ELI, we've seen many small-scale successes by participants, but as Kennedy and Jessica prove, it doesn't hurt to dream big.

Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner.  Find Me Unafraid. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015.


By Kevin O'Neill


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