Cry my beloved village – by Felix Otieno, KI Manager

Recently I posted a verse from a famous Jamaican reggae musician on one of the many Kibera community facebook pages (Kibera is the largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya). The page’s membership is mainly from the Silanga and Soweto East villages, two of the thirteen villages that make up Kibera. The two villages are currently notorious for gun crime. In fact, the police rank those two areas as some of the worst crime hot spots in Nairobi. I had been irked by the numerous killings of young men, some of them innocent members of the community caught up in the battle between law enforcement and young criminals.  There is high tension in those two communities and bullets are often flying around – too many lives lost.

This is what I wrote, having paraphrased the verse to fit into the Silanga and Soweto East context, ‘…Too much guns in town, they running Soweto and Silanga like a cowboy town…so why kill your brother, it makes no sense.  In the ghetto, too much pressure.  Let’s come together, work hard help ghetto youth climb up the ladder.’ My intention was to provoke a discussion among the group members that would eventually lead to them suggesting solutions or and possible interventions to help remedy the situation.

Many comments were made but two stood out for me: a member of the group commented that youth should decide to change, leave their criminal ways and become good citizens before they can be engaged; another suggested that the leaders start with the good ones first – the ‘good ones’ here referring to  the young men and women who are not yet involved in crime – before thinking of those already in crime. His argument was that those getting into crime are being recruited from the ‘good ones’ who want to earn a living. This way, they (the ‘good ones’) will have no reason to join crime as they will have alternative and non-detrimental sources of livelihood. This is in contrast to the current situation where the young men involved in crime live lavish and flashy lifestyles able to afford everything while the ‘good ones’ languish in unemployment, idleness, hopelessness and disillusionment. They are then susceptible to negative peer influence and eventually end up being recruited into the criminal gangs.

In my daily interaction with members of the community and community leaders; and in my quest to unravel the reasons for the sudden surge in deadly crime and insecurity in the two villages several issues have become of note. First is access to firearms. Youth as young as 13 years old have access to guns and ammunition. This easy and unhindered access to guns gives them the courage to get involved in crime. Often, it is only one or two members of a gang with guns.

The member with a gun is normally the leader, feared and revered in equal measure. Other members refer to him as their father. It is every member’s aspiration to own a gun since this will earn him this kind of reverence and respect from other gang members. They even go to the extent of pooling money after a ‘mission’ to buy each other guns in turns. In many instances after a sizable number of group members have guns they split up. Each member with a gun forms his own gang and becomes its leader. These gangs operate in cahoots, sharing ‘intelligence’ and supporting each other during ‘missions.’ The source of these guns has remained a mystery with unfounded rumours that the gangs could be operating in covert partnership with some rogue elements within law enforcement agencies – conspiracies abound, leading to even more distrust in the said communities.

Second is availability and access to cheap but lethal drugs. Some of these drugs can be bought over the counter in the many unregulated pharmacies and chemist shops. Others like marijuana are so available that it is no longer considered effective and fashionable to use. Many of the youth involved in crime are addicts who must have their daily fix. More often than not, they have to get high before going on ‘missions’. Being on a high numbs them and gives them a stimulated sense of courage. Also, since they are addicted they must –t hrough whichever means – get money to buy their daily fix. It is a vicious circle!

Another contributing factor is the current poor state of the only community public space – Undugu Silanga Sports Field – in the area. This field was upgraded by KI in phases and was in a good state. It had become a nerve center for most if not all communal activities: it was a training facility for local youth football teams. Young men would be kept busy in late afternoons after school, venue for community meetings, crusades, meeting venue for women groups, football tournaments and many sensitization and capacity building trainings for the local community –organized by local Community Based Organizations and Non-Governmental Organizations. The field was turned into a dumping site during the just ended general Kibera upgrading project. The field is in a state of total disuse. All the above community activities no longer happen. The youth are idle; in fact the lower section of the field is slowly turning into a marijuana smoking area.

Tension between local youth and police is high. The local community is generally afraid of the police too. No one wants to be seen to be involved with either side. A fortnight ago I was in Soweto East at around 9.00 pm. Being the place where I grew up, it’s always a norm for me to stop by and catch up with friends. On this particular day I was standing by the roadside chatting with two young men. There were two other groups of young men on either side of the road. I had seen them and I knew most of them, to my knowledge none of them were of a criminal nature. A few minutes into chatting with my two friends, I saw a contingent of armed police in uniform approaching. They must have been on one of their many regular patrols.

The two groups of young men suddenly joined me and my two friends. I thought they just wanted to be part of the conversation I was having with my two friends so I greeted each of them and inquired how they were. Even before I was done greeting all of them I noticed that the contingent of police was now closer and keenly looking at us. They slowly passed and went on their way. Immediately, the two groups went back to their original positions after one of them thanked me for helping them not get arrested. They were afraid the police might think they were up to no good and might get into serious trouble.

I have never been to Brazil but I have heard stories about the favelas in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. I do not want my two villages and Kibera as a whole to be like them. The young men and women in my village have tremendous potential. KI is already playing a role to give them opportunities and platforms to realize their potential, to explore and exploit their talents and abilities – to achieve their aspirations in life. To make them realize that crime is not the way, we just need to keep working hard to enlarge the platforms. In addition, we need to bring trust back into the community so that problem-solving is done through positive dialogue and not with bullets.

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