KENYA: Inspiring young people in slums

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Kenya's general elections in December hold special promise for Willis "Booster" Mbatia, a resident of the sprawling Mathare slums, one of the largest informal settlements in Nairobi.

Mbatia, 27, hopes to be one of the local councillors: "It is about time the youth, especially those in the slums, had one of their own in a position of leadership.

"I have successfully been a head boy and a youth leader. I do not see why I cannot represent the rights of the youth as a councillor," Mbatia, a primary-school graduate, told IRIN.

“I would address the issues of insecurity, access to healthcare and a clean environment, ethnic division, and the lack of education opportunities because most of the crime is due to this,” he said. “I would also ensure that the beneficiaries of bursaries are the genuinely needy, not those related to the leaders," he said.

"My lack of higher education does not discourage me from vying for political office," he said. "There are many professors in Kenya, but the country is still not developing as it should."

With most youth in the slums often lacking the opportunities for a good education and training, programmes run by or targeting young people are filling an important gap - providing skills and hope.

Vocational training

Mbati, a freelance estate agent, has been a leader of various youth groups in the slums. "When the people have a problem, they send me to talk to the local councillor," he said. "I owe my leadership skills to having joined the Mathare Youth Sports Association [MYSA] instead of being idle at home."
MYSA, created in 1987, has 17,000 members from 16 slum areas in Nairobi who are involved in its various programmes, including vocational training, environment clean-up campaigns and awareness-raising of children's rights, HIV/AIDS and reproductive health.

"I joined MYSA after completing primary school," said Mbatia. "I was the coach of the under-12 and under-18 football teams. We were also trained in socialisation and leadership skills.

"As an individual youth in the slums, it is hard to get recognition for your efforts but being in a group provides more opportunities to improve one's life," he said.

He said most youngsters who joined the association with him now had jobs or were playing professional football.

According to John Ndichu Ng'ethe, a former chairman of MYSA, direct involvement of the youth in the programmes either as peer counsellors or participants gave them a sense of ownership over the projects.

"Engaging the youth in such activities gives them hope," Ng'ethe said. "The youth are empowered with decision-making skills."

Facing discrimination

Sarah Odeke, one of the beneficiaries of such a youth initiative, said the youth in the slums would have an even greater chance of success if they faced less discrimination.

"If you are a youth from the slums you are either viewed as a prostitute if you are female, or a thief if you are male," Odeke said. "It is about time people put an end to this stereotyping."

"Discrimination against people from the slums should stop. We are like everyone else only that we do not have similar opportunities," she added.

Odeke, who is a member of a women’s football team, has also benefited from training on HIV/AIDS behaviour change.

Her friends, however, have not been as lucky: "Most of my friends in the ghetto are dying of HIV/AIDS or are on their way towards being infected by engaging in prostitution," she said, "Others have gone abroad with tourists for the same thing."

A community-based organisation sponsored Odeke's secondary education. "I am viewed as a role model by the other children in the slums," she said, "I feel honoured. My mother, who is jobless, is also very proud of me and I am glad I am able to help my family with the money I make," she said.

In addition to a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working with the youth, the Mathare valley slum has four youth groups involved in HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns, environmental hygiene, education, children's rights, and drug-abuse awareness that use video, theatre, music and photography to convey the message.

People power on the airwaves

In the neighbouring Korogocho informal settlement, 10 youngsters established a community radio station known as Koch FM in 2006 to enlighten slum dwellers on how they could improve their lot.

The radio station, whose motto is ‘Educating through Entertainment’, is run by 23 volunteers who produce programmes showcasing youth talent on governance, gender and children’s issues.

According to Martin Ndungu, the financial manager of the station, who also doubles as presenter of a popular show, "Wasanii [artists’] Panel", people in the slums are often ignorant of issues of importance to them.

"For example, they are not aware that the national budget also affects them directly," Ndungu said. "There is a need to break the ignorance."

Koch FM, which broadcasts to an audience within a 2km radius, reaches at least 200,000 people in Korogocho and neighbouring areas.

Some local leaders were against the idea and its founders had to lobby for support from the provincial administration. Others wanted the radio to promote their personal interests, according to Ndungu.

To raise funds he sells souvenir T-shirts and greeting cards. "We are able to pay for electricity and maintain a stand-by generator," he said.

"It is sad to see most of our friends using drugs when one can see their immense potential," he said. "We need to reach them with a message of hope. We are also looking for support so that the community radio project can become more sustainable," he said. "We do not want our dream to die with us."

Mbatia said young people from the slums who had succeeded in various fields served as an inspiration to others.

"There is a wealth of talent in the slums but leaders have failed us. Funds allocated to benefit the youth do not easily trickle down to the slum youth who need them most," he said.

Source: IRIN