Can former criminals project manage Africa's biggest slum upgrade?

The Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, is Africa's largest urban slum and home to roughly 1 million people. Photo by: Michael Igoe / Devex

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has declared war against criminal corruption within his own governing regime, but in his battle for the hearts and minds of Africa’s largest urban slum, Kenyatta has turned to an unlikely ally: a group of former criminals.

The four-party “Jubilee” coalition has promised housing upgrades, infrastructure projects and better services in Nairobi’s famous Kibera slum, home to a widely disputed number of people that range between 800,000 and 1.5 million. The settlement is in the early stages of a major face-lift — at least according to official plans and rhetoric — and a group of “reformed” young thieves, bandits and criminals is providing some of the manpower and organization for the effort.

The Youth Reform Self-Help Group was originally founded in 2001, when Mohammed Abdulai and six others saw one of their friends murdered and decided a criminal life in Kibera held little long-term promise.

Humble beginnings

“We didn’t have anything,” Abdulai told Devex from the bench outside the group’s headquarters, next to a Kibera road that has recently been paved, and across from the community showers and toilets that were one of the group’s first initiatives.

The Youth Reform Self-Help Group began informally with seven people, focused on garbage collection and water provision. They received a smattering of individual donations, but decided after having to close down twice due to lack of resources that “enough is enough” and that they should set up a real office, which they did in 2006.

A Swedish organization donated one water tank, and Amref Health Africa donated another. The Kibera Youth Initiative for Community Development, a local organization, is also identified as a funder by a painted inscription on the center’s purple wall. The tanks now feed a brightly painted community bathroom, where anyone can pay a small fee for a shower or a toilet.

In the postelection violence of 2007, Kibera saw increased attention from international organizations, including the French Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development, which provided additional resources to the self-help group.

At that point, Abdulai said, “We were able to start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”

In another example of rehabilitation, the group — with funding from the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help — turned a garbage dump into a working greenhouse, where former bandits tend crops of kale, spinach, pumpkin and, soon, tomatoes. When they first tested the soil it was contaminated with zinc, so they planted sunflowers for their remediating effect.

Last week the self-help group received a donation of 25 chickens, though Abdulai hopes to increase their stock to 3,000 in the future.

They also have an inventory of chairs and tents, which they rent for community functions like weddings and funerals.

The Youth Reform Self-Help Group's community shower and toilet project. Photo by: Michael Igoe / Devex

From bandits to project managers

Kenya’s president — who paid a visit to the group’s slum headquarters just last week, according to Abdulai — continues to fight to convince residents that his promises for Kibera’s future are more than empty campaign slogans. As part of those efforts, the Youth Reform Self-Help Group has been tapped for another job: overseeing many of the construction projects and rehabilitation plans Kenyatta has devised for the perennially underserved settlement area.

The work they’ve already done has earned the group credibility in the community, and members’ histories as participants in the slum’s criminal networks have made them acutely attuned to security threats — and uniquely positioned to confront them, since they still know many of the unreformed criminals that might otherwise threaten their progress.

Billions of dollars have been poured into Kibera in the past, but residents told Devex they don’t know where much of that money has gone — nor do they see it contributing significantly to better quality of life in the huge, sprawling settlement. Corruption charges plague the current administration, and many remain skeptical it will be able to effect positive change when government resources flow so freely to those in positions of power.

Kibera’s citizens have little patience for criminality, and their judgements can be harsh. Residents told Devex that since police officers are often implicated in the settlements’ crime rings — by some accounts they even “rent” their guns to local criminals — citizens tend to take law and punishment into their own hands.

Last week, according to Abdulai, a “wanted” young thief was apprehended by local residents and burned to death.

Real progress or public relations?

On Saturday, former Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga told the Sunday Nation the president is unlikely to be successful in an anti-corruption crusade that seems more like a public relations campaign than a fully committed policy.

“On PR and propaganda I will give them an A-minus. On substance and delivery of things that can improve the lives of Kenyans, I give them a D-plus,” Odinga told the Kenyan news outlet.

Abdulai is optimistic the Jubilee coalition’s plans for Kibera are sincere. He hopes that they are since other sources of funding have seemed less readily available of late.

“The funders, nowadays, are not here,” Abdulai told Devex, adding that maybe that’s because the government is “putting more effort” toward the politically valuable and high-profile Kibera slum.

Abdulai’s optimism about the administration’s plans can partly be attributed to the fact that he has become a de facto government representative, a resident of Kibera told Devex. Indeed, the self-help leader, who hopes his group will be able to start offering computer classes and contributing to kids’ school fees, seems to have eased into that role.

“Sometimes when I walk around here, I’m the like [minister of parliament],” he told Devex.

At a time when government graft and money laundering splash the front page of the nation’s newspapers, perhaps those who have seen what criminality looks like — and decided it’s not worth it — are the right ones to turn to for leadership.

Want to learn more? Check out the Youth Will website and tweet #YouthWill.

Youth Will is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, The Commonwealth Secretariat, The MasterCard Foundation and UN-Habitat to explore the power that youth around the globe hold to change their own futures and those of their peers.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.

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