Story 24: Activities That Unite

BENARD OCHIENG

Mathare is one of the biggest collection of slums in Africa. It is located around 5 km from Nairobi and serves as a home for  more than half a million of its inhabitants. Because of the high level of violence, it can be a very dangerous place on its own, but perhaps the most dangerous activity in Mathare is peacebuilding. This testimony comes from Benard Ochieng, who is one of the leaders of the Mathere Organization for Talented Youth.

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get involved in peacebuilding in Mathare?

It all started in 2004 when I saw a gang of four boys raping a girl and couldn’t do anything about it. I’ve observed brutality in Mathare for a longer time, but this moment convinced me to finally undertake actions to make Mathare a safer place. So, it started with me talking to young boys, one at the time, and asking them simple questions like: “why are you doing this kind of things?”.  First, I wanted to learn about the causes of violence in Mathare. Second, I wanted to confront them with their deeds and see their reaction. Their replies were usually similar – they lacked role-models, they never received education, didn’t have a job and so on. They came from the slums, and in here you need to bribe your boss to get a job. I realized that I could start by trying to answer their needs.

So,  what have you done for them?

Well, first of all, if you want to change the community you need to change youth. Our first project was a school for orphaned kids and children from unprivileged backgrounds who couldn’t afford to go to school. In 2011 we had 150 students and now, just 3 years later, we have 250 students. Many students finishing our school stay with us and are becoming teachers for younger generations. Now our biggest problem is to accommodate all the candidate students. Later on, we came up with the idea to provide the youth of Mathare with additional options for their free time, such as sport and different cultural activities including music and theatre.

Before you address a problem, you need to acknowledge that it exists. When you see violence on a streets or domestic violence in your home, you can either ignore it or – for example – make a song about it. This helps young people to recognize and eventually overcome their problems. You need to understand that here in  Kenya we have still got a very strong sense of tribal community and this may result in conflicts. But when you play soccer you don’t know where your opponent comes from; it’s the same with other activities – theater or singing – they unite. Afterwards, when the game or performance ends, we sit together and talk about problems of youth and community.

These boys and girls are somewhat lost; they come to us and ask us if they can join us. Once they’re occupied with an activity and they’re helping us, they don’t have time to be consumed by violent activities. Instead they make their own CD’s, something that has been very distant to them before they joined our group. And it all started with groups of youth that were gathering in a hall to sing.

What happens when they get older?

For older youth, we came up with an idea of micro-financing: we provide them money to start a business, 10.000 Kenyan shillings or around 100 euros. This allows them to start their entrepreneurship, and after  2 months they pay this money back. Normally they create some kind of a small business, like selling tomatoes or repairing shoes, it really depends on the person. If they need more money for developing their ideas, we can provide them with another loan – this time with a small interest – so that we can provide more people with funding for their ideas. So far we have provided this kind of help for 40 people. Now they have a source of income and they are contributing to our local community.

We’re also getting involved in gender projects. When women want to run for parliamentary seats, other politicians will always come, very often with guns and just dictate their terms. It’s very difficult to provide women with a platform to meet and get information on their rights. To help address this, we rent various halls, movie to other places and try to invite more people to support our cause.

How do you feel personally about working in MYTO? Did you receive any threats?

Over the years, we have received many threats. For example, I was running in an elections for a position of a Counselor in a local council, and even though I know people voted for me I wasn’t elected. I couldn’t do anything about this because I didn’t have money, and – sadly – money is essential when it comes to Kenyan politics. Nonetheless, I am very happy with the work that I am doing. Here we can develop exactly as we want, and no policeman is asking for a bribe. I have to say that I am really proud of what this place has become.

Do you feel that the situation in Mathare is changing?

Violence has come down, but the situation is still unstable. For example, politicians sponsor young people to fight with their political opponents. Because these kids gets paid 500 shillings, around 5 euro, when they don’t have a job, it’s difficult for us to convince these young people that they shouldn’t engage in this kind of activities. Nonetheless, we try. We tell them that 5 euros in not enough for them in the long run and it’s better to devote their time to community development, to go to school and invest in themselves or perhaps use our micro-financing to develop their ideas.

You’ve already accomplished much, what are your plans for the future?

We have an idea for a project. The thing is, we have a land in Migori, it’s in the area around Lake Victoria, that could be used to build a school but we currently don’t have enough money – so we need more recognition. We are trying some digital forms to promote our organization and we have also started fundraising activities to get more money from external donors.

Moreover, non-formal schooling is not recognized by Kenyan government. In Kenya we have only private schools, government schools and very few non-formal schools. We’re aiming at getting all the non-formal schools together and create a network, to get more recognition for this kind of learning and gain more importance. I believe that together we will have more chances of success.

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Story: Benard Ochieng (33) is leader of Mathere Organization for Talented Youth. He grew up in Migori and came to Nairobi in 1998 to look for a job. At the beginning he was working as a carpenter, but then he decided to start an organization to change the lives of the people in the Mathare community.

Artist: Claudi López

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