NAIROBI, April 7 – Two months ago, the Kibera slum was a no go zone. Running battles, and the burning of houses and businesses were the order of the day.
Columns of black smoke billowed towards the skyline from the area almost non-stop as families fled for safety, headed to unknown destinations.
Young people were the main perpetrators of the havoc there, and Geoffrey* admits to have been among that number. He lives in Kisumu Ndogo, an area within the expansive Kibera slum.
As I walk through dark alleys with the 22-year-old, jumping over one ditch and then another, I notice that life here is back to normal. Children are playing, and businesses are operating as usual. Geoffrey tells me that most of the people who had fled their homes are now back.
We pass through an area called Gatuikira, which Geoffrey says, is a very volatile part of Kibera. This is where violence always erupts first; it is the epicentre of aggression.
“Most of the youth in this area have no jobs, so when such a thing erupts they are easily used,” he says.
“Then some of them have used drugs for a long time. You know when someone is addicted to Chang’aa (local illegal brew) and bhang’ (Marijuana), it’s very easy to persuade the person, pay them as little as Sh200 or Sh300 and they will do what you want.”
In his house, he leaves me alone for a while to go and look for some of his friends who were also involved in violent activities during the post poll turmoil. He returns with a group of 6 youth. Underneath their streetwise demeanour they appear uneasy about our encounter. But once we got started they were eager to share their experiences.
Geoffrey starts explaining exactly how and why he got involved in disrupting the peace.
“The youth were all over, each of us was looking for how we can get involved and assist in the destruction. We would set fire to houses, barricade roads, loot household items and so many other bad things.”
He says some of them were being paid in secret and they would say that they were “getting good money.”
“There were those rumours and I’m sure they were not getting below Sh1,000 per day. But the morale they had made us join them even without knowing what was happening.”
After realising the violence was getting out of hand and they too were in danger, Geoffrey says he decided to go to the Jamhuri Park showground, which was hosting hundreds of displaced families mainly from Kibera, where he engaged in volunteer work, although he was looking for a paying job.
“There is a time I was walking from the showground and I found the roads barricaded. As I headed to a shop to buy something to eat, I saw someone’s head on the side of the road. I was so shocked, my hunger just disappeared.”
“When I remember such things, I get really afraid and count myself lucky to be alive,” a visibly traumatised Geoffrey explains.
Geoffrey worked as a volunteer at the camp until the situation normalised with the signing of the National Peace Accord towards the end of February
He was at first not willing to take part in any volunteer work, but a lady known as Wachuka Njoroge*, a lecturer at Kenyatta University, convinced him to take it up.
Wachuka was also a volunteer at the camp, where she and her family cooked for more than 2,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).
Chris* and Anthony* are two other youths who were involved in the violence. They also live in Kisumu Ndogo.
“During that violent period some youth would loot alcohol together, and then turn against each other when they got drunk. Some had even been neighbours for a long time but they would send you away if you were not from the ‘right community’,” Chris stated.
“We used everything at our disposal to cause mayhem. We would barricade the roads and then engage the police in running battles, so much so that we became immune to teargas. We would breathe in and out and continue with causing chaos,” added Anthony.
16-year-old Andrew* had travelled to his rural home at the time but says he would have participated in the mayhem had he been around.
“Even there (the rural home), we caused a bit of disruption here and there but not as much as in Nairobi,” Andrew reveals.
Geoffrey says he has been lucky because he has been getting help from Wachuka.
“She assisted me to buy household items and enrolled me in a school to learn sign language.”
However, that’s as far as it went. Wachuka says he was supposed to get donor assistance for his education but there seems to be no one willing to lend a hand anymore.
“I did what I could. I am an ordinary Kenyan. I have all these people looking up to me for assistance and I still have my family with me. My salary is not enough to cater for all these needs,” she complains.
“It seems like well-wishers have given up. But Kenyans need to know that we are close to the finish line. Why should we run half a race?” she challenged.
The volunteer appealed to Kenyans to assist the IDPs, and especially the youth, to rebuild their lives so that they don’t resume their wayward ways.
She is now in the process of registering an organisation that will offer assistance to all those who have been looking for support from her.
The youth on the other hand have formed a group called ‘WEGOTAFOGO’ which they says means, ‘we gonna truly act for good,’ where they assist each other to rebuild their lives and create harmony amongst different communities living there.
The group currently has a membership of 34.
“This youth group assists us so much because we stay busy. At my age (17 years) I can’t go asking for money from my father. I have to get my own means so if I got a job no matter how much I earn, I would appreciate,” said Ruth*, a member of the youth group.
The young people are determined to start afresh and have been involving themselves in activities like sports, theatre and taking care of the environment.
They however say they lack sufficient funds to run their activities and have called on well-wishers to help them reconstruct their lives and stop engaging in lawlessness.
“We have no funds and we want to recruit more young people in the group. But most of them are asking for motivation, so without funds it’s difficult to convince them,” concludes Geoffrey.
*To protect the identities of the young people quoted as having engaged in lawlessness, their names have been changed.