Written by Hannah Bain
It all started with $26, an unlikely connection, and a commitment to service. In 2000, Rye Barcott, then a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), was studying ethnic violence among youth in Kibera when he met Tabitha Festo, a local nurse, and Salim Mohamed, a Kenyan community organizer. Tabitha’s drive to make a difference and Salim’s passion for locally-led change inspired Rye to do more than research. He decided to begin raising money for locally-led projects when he returned to the U.S.
The day before he left Kibera, Tabitha approached him and asked for $26 so she could buy and sell vegetables to support her family. Her kindness and quiet confidence compelled Rye to grant her the money, but he would never have guessed that Tabitha would use the initial investment to open a clinic just one year later.
Talent is Universal, Opportunity is Not
After returning to North Carolina for his senior year at UNC, Rye co-founded a nonprofit and named it Carolina for Kibera (CFK), connecting his current network with an informal settlement over 7,600 miles away. At its inception, CFK was a soccer program designed to promote leadership development and reduce ethnic violence among youth in the community. It was built on the knowledge that talent is universal, even though opportunity is not, and it sought to provide young people with greater opportunities to develop valuable skills.
Salim had already co-founded and run nationally acknowledged youth development programs using similar strategies, and he began leading CFK on the ground in Kenya. Guided by the principles of participatory development, CFK engaged community members to help assess needs and develop solutions within Kibera.
In 2001, Salim and Rye set off to engage local youth in Kibera when they re-connected with Tabitha.
Using the $26 investment that Rye had given her one year earlier, Tabitha had built a business and used her earnings to open a community health clinic. The clinic was attached to Tabitha’s home and served patients 24/7 because, as Tabitha said, “people don’t stop getting sick at night.” One of the few clinics in Kibera operated by a trained nurse, the facility provided critical healthcare services to all who were in need. No one would be turned away, regardless of their ability to pay.
While Rye and Salim had co-founded a sports for development program, their ultimate vision for CFK was to promote comprehensive health and wellness in Kibera. Tabitha and her clinic became a natural part of CFK and laid the foundation for the organization’s primary healthcare services.
Founding Binti Pamoja: “Daughters United”
One year later, Karen Austrian and Emily Verellen, two undergraduate students who had spent a year studying and volunteering in Kenya, sparked the idea for CFK’s Girls Empowerment Program. Through their experience working in a reproductive health clinic and with children on the streets of Nairobi, Karen and Emily recognized a gap in services and programs tailored to the unique needs of girls.
After receiving a small grant from Columbia University, they returned to Kenya and partnered with CFK to implement a two-month program using photography as a tool to engage adolescent girls in discussions about women’s rights and reproductive health.
Based on interactions with these teenage girls in Kibera, Karen and Emily recognized the need and developed a curriculum for a long-term girl-centered program in the community.
Equipped with the girls’ photos and their personal experiences, Karen and Emily returned to the U.S. to apply for additional funding and raise awareness by hosting photo exhibitions across the country. After securing more sustainable funding, the two women returned to Kenya to lay the foundation for what is now CFK’s Girls Empowerment Program. Following CFK’s participatory development models, they identified and cultivated local female leaders to head the program.
Building an Equitable Research Platform
After working with and learning from the community for a few years, CFK recognized the need for greater global public health equity and discovered how community-based research could inform people and policies beyond Kibera. In 2006, CFK established a partnership with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), helping form the organization’s largest overseas population-based infectious disease surveillance program and supporting data collection to inform health policy formulation in Kenya and around the world.
Through the partnership, CFK helped introduce household mapping and GIS technologies to Kibera, which have played essential roles in ongoing population projects. Over the last 15 years, our work with the CDC has generated more than 80 peer-reviewed journal articles, all of which have Kenyan lead authors or co-authors.
Furthermore, the research that CFK is involved in is not extractive. Findings benefit the community by informing program development, leading to tangible health improvements, and more inclusive national and global policies concerning informal settlements.
Tukisonga Mbele: “Forward Together”
Over the last 20 years, CFK has learned that addressing informal settlements’ complex health and social challenges requires multilateral solutions, local leaders, and evidence-based programming. Through partnerships, participatory development, and sacrifice, CFK has developed a comprehensive approach to poverty alleviation, with a range of primary healthcare services, education and livelihoods programming, and girls’ empowerment initiatives.
While our work has been rooted in Kibera, our 20 years of experience in the community is now informing our growth to additional informal settlements in Kenya.