One day nearly two decades ago, an American family was looking forward to a trip to Africa.
But a 14-year-old boy almost ruined his family’s plans when he drank himself silly at a camping party.
Initially, it looked like the trip was off, and Rye Barcott was grounded for the summer.
But Barcott’s father, a stern ex-marine, decided: “Maybe he’ll realise how lucky he really is if he sees other parts of the world.”
This episode is firmly etched in Barcott’s mind. He recounts it in the opening of his memoirs, It Happened on the Way to War.
Barcott’s initial encounter with Africa while on safari in Kenya in 1993 exposed him to the overwhelming needs of the people.
Later as a university student on a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship at the University of North Carolina in 2000, Barcott developed an insatiable interest to study the intricacies of tribal tension in Africa.
Barcott was initially drawn to Rwanda because of the 1994 genocide as the subject of his research.
But someone suggested that tribal conflict in the slums of Nairobi would be a better alternative.
Passion for the place
Two weeks ago, Barcott returned to Nairobi to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the creation of Carolina For Kibera (CFK), a non-profit organisation he co-founded in Kibera with Ms Tabitha Festo Atieno, a nurse, and Salim Mohamed, a community worker.
The celebration coincided with the Kenyan launch of the book It Happened on the Way to War that tells the life of an American in Kibera and the uncelebrated heroines in the improvement of the welfare of the people of Kibera.
“The power of the story is not necessarily my story; it is the story of Tabitha,” Barcott told Saturday Nation.
Now 32 and married with a daughter, the former US marine comes back to Kibera once a year.
His passion for the place he describes as his “second home” is evident when he says: “I was inspired by the notion that talent is universal; opportunity not. That is why I dedicated the book to Tabitha and Salim.”
Barcott met Tabitha, a widowed nurse, during the early days of his research in Kibera.
It is through Tabitha, he says, that he was confronted by the harsh reality of people with goodwill but who lacked opportunity.
“Tabitha’s problems were so vastly different from my own. Yet I felt a strong connection to her,” he writes in his autobiography.
Tabitha was a registered nurse who dreamt of starting her own clinic, but she had no savings when her husband died.
Barcott lived in a in a 10-by-10 foot mud-walled room in the slum where he spent a plenty of time with young slum dwellers.
“I was overwhelmed by the deprivation, and after a number of conversations, the fundamental truth was that their talent was untapped, and opportunities were very few,” he said.
Barcott’s memoirs captures the reality of the life of heroines like Tabitha.
“It is important to have a book that is an honest representation of events and not only shares success but also failures,” Barcott told a gathering at Alliance Francaise recently.
The simple act that gave birth to Carolina For Kibera happened 11 years ago when Barcott gave Tabitha some Sh2,000 for her to set up a small business, selling sukuma wiki. Soon after, he left Kibera.
“We shook hands. Tabitha didn’t seem to be the hugging type. She walked me to a hill overlooking a portion of Kibera’s sea of rusted tin roofs. We parted ways.
“I didn’t know if I would ever see Tabitha again, or what would become of the Sh2,000,” Barcott writes in his memoirs.
The Sh2,000, however, enabled Tabitha to make enough money to set up a one-room clinic within the slum. And so the Tabitha Medical Clinic was born.
What began as a tiny room with no doctor, and no equipment, stands tall today in the middle of the slum, offering free medical care to residents.
The bigger clinic was constructed with help from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It now employs 54 people, including a doctor and six clinical officers. It has state-of-the-art equipment, including an ultra-modern laboratory and an x-ray facility.
As fate would have it, Tabitha never lived to see the stone-built clinic her staff moved into in 2009; she died in December 2004. But her dreams live on.
The many celebrities and foreign leaders and dignitaries who gingerly descend on Kibera’s filthy alleyways to the clinic have all heard of Tabitha Festo.
Her vision had been to set up a modest medical clinic from which she could help her neighbours; the realisation of that dream is now a world-class primary health care centre for thousands of people in Kibera.
“This was Tabitha’s dream,” said George Kogolla, the executive director of CFK, as he stood proudly outside the entrance to the Tabitha Medical Clinic.
Eddah Dzame, the head nurse, says the clinic receives 250 patients every day, most do not pay for treatment.
The clinic is bright, clean and well equipped, a far cry from the adjacent decrepit structures.
Though Kibera’s story has often been told, heroic deeds like Tabitha’s are never mentioned.
Why has it taken so long to tell the Tabitha story, the Carolina For Kibera story, and why did it take Barcott to ignite the hopes and aspirations of the youth in this settlement?
These are some of the questions that resonate in Barcott’s heart every day.
“I wanted to help to make the world a better place,” he said.
Although he carried a rifle in Bosnia, Iraq and Djibouti, he took the path of peace, interacting with locals in Kibera.
Abdul Hussein, Barcott’s age mate, is one of the young people who have vivid memories of the origin of CFK.
Hussein, who grew up in Kibera’s Makina village, is the CFK sports programme officer. He says being employed is the best gift he has ever received.
“I don’t know how life would have been without a job. I have a family, and I can take good care of it. Many youths here have received scholarships,” he said.
Although Hussein has travelled to the US, South Africa, Namibia, India and The Gambia through his job, he still lives in Kibera.
“I’ll live here as long as it takes,” the 32-year-old said.
Kogolla says the two major challenges in the slum are gender-based violence and teenage pregnancy, which CFK is tackling through the Binti Pamoja programme.
Eighty girls have earned scholarships for secondary education, college and university.
Last year, 399 youth received sports scholarships. Every year, CFK awards 1,000 study-related scholarships.
As unpleasant as Kibera may be, figures like the then Senator Barack Obama, former US president Bill Clinton and Dr Jill Biden, the wife of US vice-president Joe Biden, have all trooped down and seen the health facility that was started by a simple act of humanity.
Barcott makes every effort to put CFK — not himself — in the limelight. He now holds an MBA degree from Harvard and works for Duke Energy in North Carolina.
His mastery of Sheng and Kiswahili demonstrates the passion of a foreigner who rented a house in the middle of the slum and lived among the residents.
“I initially wrote a book on Carolina For Kibera, but I didn’t get a publisher in the US,” he says. “They told me that they didn’t want another book about Africa. In order to reach a larger number of people, the publisher advised me to personalise the experience of living in Kibera,” said Barcott, who heeded the advice.
The book is available for Sh2,340 in local bookshops. He says 26 per cent of the proceedings will go to the CFK kitty.
Barcott has already visited 26 cities in the US on his book tour.
The finale was Nairobi, the only pain was that Tabitha was not around to read the book that opens with the pages of her bravery and determination to have a clinic in Kibera.