A marine’s journey to peace through Kibera

Sunday August 7 2011

Western donors funding the dozens of local non-governmental organisations working in Kibera and other slums in Kenya might want to take the time to read It Happened on the Way to War. Rye Barcott’s memoir may just change their views about the lucrative business that philanthropy has become.

It is an open secret that a large part of the funds channelled to these NGOs do not go towards ameliorating the lives of the slum dwellers as they are meant to, but end up financing “operating costs”— the six-figure salaries of consultants, lawyers, and hundreds of other “experts” who have lined up for their turn at the trough of “sorrow dollars.” If you’ve ever attended one of those “brainstorming” seminars at an exclusive restaurant or conference facility, you will have an idea of the excesses; simply put, it’s a scandal.

Change we need

Although Barcott certainly wasn’t the first to be moved to action in a place that looked impossible to change, his decision to do something for the young people of Kibera was partly anchored in the thinking of people as diverse as Karl Marx and Margaret Mead. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways,” Marx said. “The point, is to change it.”

For Mead, the American anthropologist much admired by Barcott’s mother Donna, it was the conviction that the power of a “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” could drive change.

It takes quite lot of courage for a young white man to take up residence in a place like Kibera; in fact, it could be the height of folly. For one, he would stand out like a sore thumb.

Safety issues notwithstanding, if you speak with those who live there, they’ll tell you that Kibera gets under your skin and is not easily washed away. That is the only explanation for the unlikely love affair between the sprawling slum and a young American Marine who could have been doing more exciting things with his time. Only a Kibera resident would understand this.

Barcott, who had received a full scholarship to the University of North Carolina (UNC) through the US Marine Corps’ Reserve Officer Training Corps, came to Kibera when his plan to do research on ethnic conflict in Rwanda fell through. He had graduated as a first lieutenant in the Marines and faced several years of active duty. But first he wanted to get involved with the youth in Kibera.

His approach was rudimentary, practically starting from scratch.

He set up Carolina For Kibera, (CFK) an organisation to develop youth leaders through mentorship. “I am not a saviour,” he told The East African in July when he was in Nairobi to launch his book and celebrate the 10th anniversary of Carolina for Kibera. “I am not the mzungu who comes in with a fancy college degree and a plan. I have actually learnt a lot from Kibera.”

Barcott was fortunate to have a host of friends and family to fall back on for intellectual, moral and financial support when he decided to create CFK. The UNC community and the military also accorded him dependable mentors to help him chart his course, both as a fledgling community organiser and a professional Marine.


The enormous community behind his initiative and the trust they had in him brought with it some testig moments. For example Kash, a close friend from Kibera who was among the founders of CFK, was offered a full scholarship to UNC. Knowing it was the opportunity of a lifetime for his friend, Barcott rallied behind Kash, despite the misgivings of some of the CFK directors. But when it was discovered that Kash had falsified the results of a mandatory test and forged the results of his KCSE, he was denied entry into the United States and deported back to Kenya.

It was a difficult moment and CKK’s integrity was at stake. Kash had to leave CFK.

The tension of walking a tightrope as a soldier and as a peacemaker is what makes this very candid book exceptional.

The paradox of a young man torn between his vocation as a trained fighter in George W. Bush’s post-September 11 gung-ho America and his peace initiative in a volatile African slum is captured best in “The Elephant and the Velvet Glove”, arguably one of the most interesting chapters in the book.

After years of doing mostly humanitarian work on his human intelligence deployment, Barcott finally has the chance to participate in active combat. Combat is every Marine’s secret desire because that is what he has really trained for. It was in 2005, and Barcott’s company was stationed at Fallujah, the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq War.

He writes, “Our instincts were to respond to violence with violence. That was how we were trained, and at the heart of it that’s what we valued… The combatants, not the capacity builders, were celebrated. I was a captive to this culture. I conformed to it in ways that, in hindsight, I would find disturbing. All of my experiences in Kibera should have enabled me to break from the clutches of groupthink…. Yet in those initial months in the country, I couldn’t have imagined playing soccer with Iraqi kids. I was too busy scouring their waistlines for concealed weapons, their pockets for grenades.”

“I found that the line between good and evil that I assumed was fixed was far more complex,” he said in the interview, admitting that it was one of the most challenging times in his life.