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The light came around the corner of the building, casting a sharp-edged shadow on the ground. Beyond, the corrugated metal of another roof glinted in the late-afternoon sun.
I was in Kibera slum in Nairobi, listening to the stories of people. They were eager to speak to a Westerner. “The men used their feet to beat the men and women,” one man says, his voice shaking. “If I’d had a gun, I would have shot them,”
A woman lifted up her shirt to show the bruises on her arm, emphasizing his words. It’s a Talbots shirt, I see from the tag, probably donated a world away in America.
The streets of the slum are hard-baked, a mixture of mud, pebbles and concrete. Unbroken lines of shacks, made of cardboard and metal cobbled together, line the streets. The poverty is overwhelming but so is a surprising energy. Everywhere I go, people want to talk.
As I walked and listened, I kept asking people for directions to the place I was headed, SHOFCO. Everyone recognized that word. SHOFCO, they said, pointing deeper into the slum. Finally one man said he would walk me there, and a bright blue water tank perched atop one of the concrete buildings came into view.
It was August 2017. I’d come to Nairobi to write about a company, Twiga, working on a new food distribution system.
But I ended up with a bird’s eye view of something that’s rarely reported on: peacebuilders in action. I was in Kenya during the aftermath of the elections, when it wasn’t clear whether the opposition party would accept the recent vote that had seen president Uhuru Kenyatta re-elected. My friend, the filmmaker Abigail Disney (disclosure: she is also an editing client), who sits on the board of SHOFCO, invited me for a visit when she learned I’d be in Nairobi.
There were gangs moving through the slum, beating people, trying to incite riots, according to the people I’d talked to, at Twiga and elsewhere. No one knew who the gangs were. One of the two political parties? A terrorist organization, working independently, or working for a neighboring government with an interest in de-stablizing Kenya?
Hundreds of thousands of people live in Kibera, with hardly any infrastructure and few land rights. Disease is common, and escape is difficult. Hopelessness makes fertile ground for violence.
“Sometimes the only way you can redeem yourself is to perpetuate the violence,” said Zebib Kavumi, the country director to UN Women, and another board member of SHOFCO. “That’s a political strategy, to divide and conquer. … The ultimate cause is to kill. We are the oppressed, and therefore we must kill.”
That’s what the peacebuilders were up against.
The Peacebuilding Movement
The obvious response to the threat of violence, especially gun violence, is to tighten security — and Kenya has seen that. After the recent Dusit Hotel attack that killed 21 people, the country’s security forces were praised for the improvements since the Westgate mall attack in 2013, when 67 people died.
But there is another, different or additional response: Peacebuilding.
Mostly off the radar, peacebuilding cobbles together economic and community development organizations, like Humanity United and Chemonics, social justice types and conveners, like Telos Group, and some elements of big corporations. Many organizations, like SHOFCO, are nonprofits, but a growing number are social enterprises. There’s a trade organization, the Alliance for Peacebuilding, with 70 members. A striking number of people and groups focus on women and girls as an early warning system and an antidote to violence that is on the rise around the world.
Peacebuilders get far less funding than what a military general might call a “dynamic” response. Countries spent $9.3 trillion on the military and security measures in 2017, according to the Economic Value of Peace report.
But as the tools for gathering and measuring data grow more sophisticated, I suspect there will be growing evidence of the effect of peacebuilding. I’m not the only one: SHOFCO (Shining Hope for Communities), one of the world’s leading peacebuilding organizations, runs a school for girls, an innovative aerial water system, and an entrepreneurship program, and serves about 220,000 people annually. It recently won the $2 million Hilton Humanitarian Prize, following organizations such as icddr,b, The Task Force for Global Health, and Landesa.
SHOFCO works in nine slums across Nairobi and Mombasa. With the funding, it plans to expand to slums across all of Kenya’s major urban areas.
There’s a saying: “If Kibera burns, Kenya burns.” To help keep Kibera from burning in August 2017, an international network of peacebuilders had activated themselves.
I finally reached SHOFCO after my long walk and found it a complex of run-down concrete buildings. I saw serious looking men at the entrance, not in uniform, but people of the community who, in times of tension, stood near the gate, guarding it. Being a beloved community center is important if the world around you threatens to go up in flames.
SHOFCO is a famous place, in part because of its compelling story. Founder Kennedy Odede grew up in the slum – he survived his mother’s abusive partner, saw his friend, a street boy, die before his eyes, and after getting a job as an unskilled laborer, founded SHOFCO with a soccer ball he bought for 20 cents. In 2007, Jessica Posner, an American exchange student, came to the slum as part of an international student program. Defying rules and cultural standards, she lived in the slum with Odede’s family. The two fell in love in a story they chronicled in a book, Find Me Unafraid; they’ve just recently had a son.
When I arrived, they were courteous but exhausted. In the next few days, Odede talked himself hoarse to anyone who listened about the need for peace, including business leaders, religious leaders and maybe most important, the vast network of people who benefit from SHOFCO.
Odede had survived the last round of election violence, in 2007, when more than 1,000 people were killed. He wrote in the book:
“I’m shivering under the bed. It’s so dark and breathing is difficult. I can feel spiders crawling over my back and rats poking my toes, but I stay still, afraid that any movement will draw the uniformed men. I hear a high-pitched scream, like that of a young girl. The uniformed men are spraying bullets and they hit anyone or anything unlucky enough to cross their path.”
A decade later, the guns were looming again, so Odede called in reinforcements. In late July, SHOFCO had been part of a Peace Rally Walk, where the U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Robert F. Godec had spoken.
In early August, Leymah Gbowee, who won the Nobel Peace Prize as part of the women’s movement that ended the civil war in Liberia, flew in to speak to the people of Kibera and lead local ministers in prayer.
The days I was there, I saw Disney meet with business leaders and speak to a group of about 20 Muslim imams. They laid plans for a Kids Day in the slum: “The kids will bond us,” said one.
“Who am I to tell you what to do?” she said. “I”m an American. I go back to America. But I know the lives of the people here are worth more than the politicians are telling you.”
In founding SHOFCO, Odede recognized that despair rises when people have no opportunities. “Peace can only emerge when people have hope for the future,” he said via email later.
As I started my tour, it started to train, a tropical rain that was as if a waterfall had opened on top of our heads. We could not go outside, so I spent lunchtime helping women who run the SHOFCO daycare. Big pots held greens and spongy soft bread that the women scooped into bowls and placed in front of two dozen children, who come from the poorest families in Kibera, or have developmental delays.
I washed a few dishes and helped a 2-year-old slow eater. She blinked sleepily while I ran my hands over her hands and face, cleaning them, and then tumbled over to the mattress where the other kids napped. Outside the rain was still falling.
Of course a community that finds ways to care for its most vulnerable members has something to live for.
“What Shofco has managed to do is they expanded beyond the community of people it serves directly,” said Kavumi, whom I interviewed later, and who helped me understand what I’d seen. “A lot of people, know that indirectly they do benefit in other ways, whether it’s through the entrepreneurship program or water.
“People don’t forget that it provides things for the whole community. … One day, you might need the clinic, medical care, or a loan. That’s why SHOFCO has managed to exist in the space it does.”
When the rain let up, I walked across to a small office that houses SHOFCO Urban Network, or SUN. Its aim is to pave the way for collective action in the slums, Odede said.
Governed by a Senate to which people from different areas of the slums are elected, it offers people a communal way to save, loans and other support. People put in $1 a month. From that communal pool, $500 is given to families who need help paying for funerals.
That’s important culturally, Isaac Gomba, SUN supervisor, told me. He’s also the person who explained what the men around the SHOFCO were doing, quietly standing guard.
“Here, there’s a great emphasis on giving people a decent send-off,” he said. “Kennedy knew that, so it helped get over the biggest obstacle to saving: That young men didn’t have hope for the future.”
The network has moved on to providing loans up to $50,000 for entrepreneurial ventures, often those that produce things for sale in the slum, like shampoo, or antiseptic.
The other services, like the entrepreneurship program, were key to building support for the center of SHOFCO’s efforts: education for girls. Two scholarship-only academies from kindergarten to eighth grade have 450 students.
When he started the first school, Odede’s life was threatened. “Ultimately, I found a way to bring the men in my community along by connecting a girls school to other needed services from which they benefit,” he said.
“Educated girls become educated wives and mothers, passing down their values and views to the next generation.”
Disney and I went to lunch and a discussion, hearing from beautifully poised girls — all scholarship students — who wanted to be teachers, writers, and singers and, one, to my delight, who wanted to be a banker.
The role of women is one of the most intriguing features in the peacebuilding movement — though you almost never see stories about in the media and it certainly hasn’t filtered into the mainstream consciousness.
Women are still “conspicuously underrepresented” at levels mostly below 10% worldwide in formal peace negotiations, the UN reported.
But grassroots activists focus on women’s role in peace extensively — that, and the fact that governments with an interest in war haven’t embraced it are probably signs that it works.
Gbowee, for instance, runs, a Monrovia-based Peace Foundation that trains students in peace building, sexual health, human rights and leadership. Kavumi, in her role with UN Women, helps connect women on the border between Kenya and Somalia with law enforcement agencies. They are often the first to know who is being recruited by militants or who has put hands on a gun.
“We want to do more of this,” she said. “We want to use women as the eyes and ears for the community.”
I left SHOFCO that evening tired and worried, myself, about what might happen in the next few days. The slum exudes energy: On my way, I still saw the the surprising joy, and now also the potential for an explosion.
Women sit behind stir-fry pots of potatoes colored by turmeric; others bend toward the ground, mixing charcoal and earth in to cones that will burn longer. Rivulets of liquid — sewage — runs down some of the streets. Children run alongside, saying, “How are you, how are you?” Men wearing leather jackets walk or ride motorbikes. A journalist I spoke with, Winnie Kamau, gave me the best insight on the people of Kibera: “They believe infrastructure, like sewers and roads, belongs to later generations.”
Everyone I spoke to understood the potential for violence. One of the taxi drivers who took me back to my hotel turned out to be a part-time Sunday preacher in the slum. Every week, he said, he focused on one message: “You are as worthwhile as anyone born outside Kibera.” This week he had adjusted it: “Don’t throw your life away.”
I felt guilty, leaving the slum for a nice hotel in Nairobi. Two days later, as the country waited for the Supreme Court decision, we went over to the Secret Garden restaurant. We sat outside, while monkeys jumped on our table, soft gray clowns that made us laugh.
It was announced: On Sept. 1, 2017, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the opposition’s petition and annulled the election (Kenyatta was re-elected later in another vote). The country held its collective breath, but the peace held.
You cannot know which men didn’t pick up guns or raise their fists. But there was no doubt that some who might have, did not. “We are changing one or two lives at a time,” Kavumi said.
Two weeks ago, while I was working on this story, we heard the news of that attack by the terrorist group Al-Shabaab on the Dusit complex. People were killed in the Secret Garden, where we’d sat that day.
There are not enough SHOFCOs in the world, and not enough peacebuilders.
January 29, 2019 at 10:30AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs