LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Rye Barcott was heading into the U.S. Marines in 2000 when he decided to spend part of his summer living in tiny shacks in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, to better understand what lay behind ethnic violence.
Eleven years on and Carolina for Kibera (CFK) (cfk.unc.edu/),
the charity Barcott helped establish to help slum dwellers help themselves, is being held up as a model for so-called “participatory development.”
Barcott wrote a book about his experiences, “It Happened on the Way to War,” published by Bloomsbury in the United States earlier this year and in Britain on July 5.
It describes his life both as an aid worker and an American soldier caught up in the post-9/11 maelstrom — worlds he believes are not mutually exclusive despite what he sees as U.S. military mistakes along the way in theatres like Iraq.
Barcott spoke to Reuters about the book.
Q: What is the book about and why did you write it?
A: “The book is about the merging of these two forms of service that some see as contradictory — social entrepreneurship in Africa and military service in the Marines.
“I started writing it about nine years ago to inspire and inform young people thinking about the difference they want to make in the world and to convey a larger point useful to our work in Kibera - that assistance is participatory. That stems from the recognition that change can’t be imposed from the outside but can come from within.”
Q: As a Marine in Iraq, among other places, do you think the U.S. military failed to recognize what you’re describing and resorted too much to force?
A: “It remains to be seen exactly what the outcome (in Iraq) will be. We certainly had some early failures and had to re-learn some of the lessons from Vietnam. That occurred due to some of the leadership of ... (General David) Petraeus, who fundamentally recognized that the military couldn’t do this alone. We had to rely on the other tools of American and international influence. Insurgencies are essentially battles for the will of the people and the military is just constrained in what it can achieve. I think the military is a learning and an adaptive organization and has certainly made some tremendous strides, in particular because it learned the hard way.”
Q: Tell us a bit more about your organization, CFK.
A: “Its principle focus is on leadership development, particularly among the youth. As in most of Sub-Saharan Africa most of the population in Kibera is under 15 and more connected than ever before and with higher expectations about what they want to achieve in the world and the changes they want to see in Kenya. We used sports, particularly soccer, to promote role models and prevent ethnic violence by bringing different groups into the same teams. The shots were called on the ground by Kenyans in the community.
“We have about 5,000 young members and this medical component through a clinic that treats about 40,000 patients (a year).”
Q: Why do you think the charity has been so successful?
A: “The main reason we’re successful is because we took a deep focus on one particular place — we’re staying focused in Kibera, although we are helping by advising other organizations.
“We’ll continue to grow CFK from within Nairobi. I think in the end civil society and NGOs are able to get resources to communities in ways governments often can’t because they tend to be encumbered by bureaucracy. My hope is that some of the members who have been part of this organization for five or six years go on to have their own careers and help change some of larger systemic problems to do with ethnicity and corruption. It has to happen from within.”
Q: You’ve been on a long tour to promote and discuss the book, particularly on U.S. campuses. What did that yield?
A: “In that tour we’ve been to 21 colleges, and what we’ve seen is tremendous energy. I was doing a panel yesterday and we asked what was the most popular and possibly most important trend on college campuses? The answer that I and others proposed was that it was what some refer to as social entrepreneurship - the applying of business skills to social problems. There’s a lot of energy on campuses about that.
“It is tied in part to the information revolution but also to the recession and the fact that expectations have been realigned and a lot of students are in positions where they are thinking about doing riskier things like starting their own businesses.
“The main ‘herd’ jobs ... were consultancy and banking. Now you see a very significant shift. This (social entrepreneurship) is an area where a lot more young people are focusing.
“The tour was a bit grueling, but it was also enriching and motivating to be around college students who are thinking about the changes they are going to make, and there’s still an optimism that is not necessarily there among adults, especially in the United States right now.”
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato