In the informal settlement of Korogocho, Nairobi, crime is a way of life for too many young people. Poverty has pushed many youths to join gangs or be used by powerful people to perform acts of violence against others. Because many youths lack positive role models, criminals become their role models. As one youth from Korogocho said, “In Koch kila kijana ni jambazi na role models wale wako ni majambazi. Wanaishi vipoa na kuvaa vi-expensive juu ya zile doo wanapata kutokana na ujambazi!” [“In Korogocho, every youth is a criminal and the only role models we have are the criminals who live the good life and dressing expensively with the money they get from crime!”] Youth enter the life of crime in their early teens starting out with petty crime with simple weapons and move from there onto larger acts with more sophisticated weapons. It is a harsh and often short life.
Unlike many other slums, ethnicity is not necessarily a point conflict in Korogocho, particularly among youth. Instead, according to one resident, “Here youth are united by crime.” However Korogocho is not immune to ethnic divisions. Elders and other community leaders in Korogocho reinforce ethnicity and political leaders can fuel ethnic-based violence as witnessed in the post election violence of 2007 and 2008. Crime in Korogocho, as in many informal settlements in Kenya, has become an obstacle to peace with criminal elements inciting neighbor against neighbor.
For 22-year-old Korogocho resident Rose Mbone, fighting against crime has become a mission. “Crime has robbed me of everything I have. I lost my baby’s father through violence when I was pregnant. My brother was gunned down during a robbery by security personnel and I have lost many friends. Youth here engage in crime despite knowing the related risks. From just being used by politicians and other powerful people they end up embracing crime as a way of life.”
Because of these experiences, Rose has become a valuable resource for building sustainable peace in Korogocho for the USAID-funded Kenya Tuna Uwezo program. Led by CHF International in partnership with Peace-Net and Kitu Cha Sheria, Kenya Tuna Uwezo is addressing barriers to peace in the informal settlements of Nairobi by facilitating extended dialogues targeted at youth who are in possession of crude weapons and guns and who engage in violent actions for economic survival or for hire by politicians for unlawful activities. The dialogues are aimed at defusing conflict and encouraging youth to pursue nonviolent forms of expression.
“My passion is to change the youths of Korogocho to be better citizens of this country, engaged in gainful activities that do not put them at loggerheads with security agents, thereby risking their lives. I long to see a peaceful, cohesive Korogocho, where people walk and do their businesses freely chatting and laughing with one another,” said Rozy. “I cannot sit there and watch this to go on; it is too painful.”
Rozy’s start with Kenya Tuna Uwezo was not easy. While frustrated by the misery brought on by crime, she – like many youth in the informal settlement – was suspicious of outsiders. In fact, her first words to the KTU team were, “If you are here to waste my time like many other organizations have done, you better leave us just to do what we do on our own.” But through meaningful and regular engagement, the KTU team slowly gained Rozy’s trust. The Kenya Tuna Uwezo Program team nominated Rozy to attend a skill building workshop on media reporting at the community level for peace promotion, organized by another USAID-funded partner, Inter-News. The KTU program has also engaged Rozy in other skill building sessions including one for trainers on mediation and conflict transformation. “KTU has provided me and many more other youth in the informal settlements with a forum to speak and share out the frustrations we live with, which many of choose to deal with through illegal and violent means.”
With the skills and confidence gained through KTU, Rozy has taken up the mantle to promote peace. She has reached out to a number of youth to get them to see the futility and danger in their current way of life. “I reach out to the some of the worst criminals in Korogocho – ‘the unreachables’ – and tell them my life story and why they need to change. I may not reach them on the first talk but many call me back. I often have to meet with people at night when it is most risky but they feel safer and I need to meet people as I can.”
Through Rozy’s passion and efforts she has convinced 11 youth – some as young as 16 years old – to give up their criminal activities and involvement in violence and work toward peace and development in their community. She has organized other youth into a village theatre group to disseminate messages of peace. She has also organized peace marches through Korogocho before the party nominations in January 2013 calling for a peaceful election process. Rozy has become a true change agent in her community.
The youth Rozy has reached are under tremendous pressure from former gang members, politicians who pressure them to cause chaos, and the threat of being arrested by local police if they do not pay them extortion fees. They even face pressure from their families and girlfriends who depend on or have become accustomed to the income they earned through criminal activity. These youth are now struggling to earn a living through petty jobs and pooling their limited resources to support one another. Still, they now see that crime is a dead end and that they have been manipulated, and while they bear the brunt of that manipulation, they are committed to seeking a peaceful way of life.
Change is never easy, but as Rozy has shown, it is possible.