Eunice Mwaura

7 mei 2021


In particular, locally rooted organizations make a difference in the response to Covid-19. With few resources, they deliver tailor-made assistance and make a Hugh impact. A report on the work of Amani Kibera in Nairobi. ‘It’s not only more effective, it guarantees the dignity of the people.’

Drop the word Kibera and many people will immediately list all the prejudices about slums- or informal settlements. However, if you do so with Mariam Twahir, you will get a warm and glowing argument about the place where she feels at home and grew up.

Kibera began as a place of residence for Nubian soldiers who fought alongside the English in The First and Second World War – such as Twahir’s great-grandfather, the Uwezo Girls Project Leader of Amani Kibera. Today, the district is primarily a labour reservoir for the nearby Industrial Area of Nairobi.

According to the government, there are now 350,000 people living there, but according to Twahir, a small million is closer to the truth.

Kibera, in western Nairobi, is divided into thirteen neighbourhoods. ‘All thirteen are unique in their diversity’, says Twahir. ‘All of Kenya’s ethnic groups live here too, it’s a cosmopolitan neighbourhood.’

We’re outside the Amani Kibera training center in the middle of the neighbourhood. In addition to Twahir, her husband Ben Ooko and Jared Ontita also sit at the table. Ooko, the Founder and Director of Amani Kibera, says it is a highly politicized district. ‘Kibera is the country’s political thermometer. If the opposition wants to make a statement about corruption or the elections, it will first come to Kibera.’

Programme manager Jared Ontita adds: ‘When a fire is lit in Kibera, it spreads rapidly across the rest of the country. Informal settlements are places where people are easiest to mobilize. It is fertile ground to send a message into the country or to protest. In Kenya, the word Kibera is central to the narrative of conflict in urban areas.’

It was against this background that Ben Ooko started community activities in 2007. He had been annoyed at an election rally of the governing party where one speaker after another spoke negatively of Kibera. ‘They all called Kibera the worst place to live, an example of how the whole country would be if the opposition won the election.’

At the time, there was a lot of tension between supporters of the government and those of the opposition. According to Ooko, you could feel it walking around Kibera, the cosmopolitan character had become a danger. He took the initiative to convene a group of young people. Together they wanted to do something to reduce the tension.

“I then organized a week of activities under the name Amani Kibera, which means ‘Peace in Kibera’. Every day we held a march through one of the neighbourhoods. We asked people to sign a peace manifesto saying that we did not accept that politicians were stoking tensions. By the end of the week, we had almost 10,000 signatures, including 24 from people running for political office.”

Yet after the elections, widespread unrest broke out in the country; for which current President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy President, but then-rival William Ruto had to answer to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. People were also killed in Kibera and houses were set on fire.

Ben Ooko

When the unrest calmed down, Ooko decided to set up a long-term organization. It became a youth movement with the same name: Amani Kibera. In order to get children from different ethnic backgrounds to interact with each other early on, he chose football as an approach. Amani Kibera organized tournaments for the youth and other teams from outside the district were allowed to participate. “To show them that Kibera is not what you see in the news,” Ooko says.

The second pillar became art and culture. “During our peace march, we used music, drama and acrobatics. That caught on and was actually the best way to mobilize people.’

And then there was education. ‘We’ve started a community library where young people come into contact with books; a safe place where they can walk in and out and where it doesn’t matter what ethnic background you have. The shared agenda is to gain knowledge –if you have a challenge, your neighbour or neighbour in the library can be the one who can help you.’

The community library of Amin Kibera

Mariam Twahir, who had become Ooko’s girlfriend and later wife, added: ‘We felt we had to do something special for girls as well, as a fourth pillar. They didn’t go to school more often than boys, sometimes because they had one or more children as a teenager.

‘I have a background as a fashion designer myself’, she continues. ‘We started an academy in which I induced them the principles of tailoring, the Uwe Girls Project. The first group consisted of twelve girls aged 14 to 17, nine of whom were already mothers. More than 500 girls have now completed their education.’

In addition to teaching skills for the craft, the fashion academy has another goal: to teach life skills. ‘I have a lot of conversations with teenage mothers to see where their problems lie. What is their own opinion and what do they want? The tendency of social workers is often to think in front of them instead of asking the girls themselves how they see something.’

Amani Kibera developed into a respected grassroots organization that does a lot with few resources. Ooko estimates that until Covid-19 broke out, it reached about 5,000 young people a year. He has a number of donors in Croatia, Ireland, Malta and the Netherlands (the International Sports Alliance), who offer modest support.

The organization does not move in the large donor circuit. Amani Kibera has received several awards, including from the Dutch Butterfly Works and her community library has been named the best in the country three times. The prize money was repeatedly put into new books and other activities.

And then came corona! Jared Ontita brings back the atmosphere of that moment. ‘When the first case was reported in Kenya, there was an immediate panic in the government. She immediately closed the schools and banned all meetings. Our centre has also been closed for two weeks.’

‘The government did talk about sanitation and basic things like washing hands, wearing a mask and staying home, but not about how these people should feed themselves. Moreover, how can you ask people to wash their hands all the time if the district has problems with water supply? We then asked ourselves what we could do as a basic organisation in humanitarian work.’

Ooko adds: ‘We also looked at what opportunities the pandemic might offer. When we reopened after two weeks, Mariam’s fashion class started producing masks. If we sold it, the girls would have an income. It wasn’t easy to keep up, many organisations handed out free masks.’

Ben Ooko, Mariam Twahir and Jared Ontita

But Amani Kibera has found a niche within the mouth caps circuit, says Twahir: ‘We make them mainly for young children. That is done much less by other organizations that make one measure for adults. Since the beginning until now, we have manufactured about 18,000 of them, as much as possible from recycled material, as well as T-shirts.’

The money for the other material was financed through crowdfunding by German and Dutch friends. Over time, other NGOs also received orders for the making of masks. “It wasn’t just about producing,”,’ says Twahir, “but its distribution went hand in hand with information about sanitation and how to use a mouth cap properly.”

Ooko nods: “We have taken a holistic approach.”

Amani Kibera quickly became involved in food aid. From the Asian Community in Nairobi, food banks were set up where organizations like Amani Kibera could pick up food to hand out to families in need. Also, money from the donor from Croatia that was actually intended as school fees, are used for food aid because the schools were closed. “We have reached 3500 families with food aid,’ says Ooko.

Amani Kibera introduced smart agriculture

Even for Ooko and Twahir, handing out food brought out many new secrets of Kibera. They saw so many people at home in the misery; people who had lost their jobs as a result of the crisis, with chronic diseases and who were unable to go to hospital, disabled children who were always hidden from the outside world by their parents anyway.

They also found that people with HIV were in trouble, because the HIV inhibitor Septrin was suddenly also used by many others to prevent Covid-19. ‘That’s what we’ve we been talking about in the national media.’

As you do, one learns. Ooko noted that food donations were bad for the local economy in Kibera- especially for the shops that sold food items. ‘Then we encouraged donors and benefactors to buy the food directly from the local shops. In our case, we gave money to the local retailers and a list of names and contacts of people in need, who could pick up their products there.’

Food aid led to yet another idea. ‘During a crisis, you notice how dependent people are on food. That’s why we delve into urban agriculture.’ Ooko proudly points to a small plot in the centre of Amani Kibera where the first test garden stands.

‘We started vertical farming, where food is grown in multiple layers on top of each other to make the most of the space. In one bag there are fifteen to 25 plants.’ There’s cabbage, spinach, onions, lettuce and tomatoes on the plot. ‘If it’s a success- we want to roll this out in the community.’

To finish the story about the special corona assistance, Amani Kibera has finally started another project: Stories of Hope. For this purpose, videos and stories are made about people who were able to give a positive turn to their lives because of the corona crisis.

Berin Akoth Odero

It began with the story of Berin Akoth Odero. When corona broke out, she lost her job as a housekeeper for a number of families. She received from the food aid of Amani Kibera among other wheat flour, from which she went to make and sell mandazis (a bun, snack).

“She didn’t want to be dependent on donations,” Ooko says. ‘We’ve given her a small investment, and she now has a shop near her house where she sells other food in addition to mandazis. And now she can more easily look back at her disabled 24-year-old son who is bed-logged.’

“For us,” Ooko continues, “Berin’s story was a sign of resistance and hope, an inspiring example for so many who lost their jobs and are just waiting for the next donation. We’ve started tracing more of these kinds of stories from people we’ve supported and moved forward. We found 50. Through the local crowdfund platform M-Changa, we started to give these kinds of initiatives a capital of between five and fifteen thousand shillings, so that they can scale it up a bit. We then document these stories to encourage others to do something.”

Meanwhile, the familiar activities of Amani Kibera continue within the limits of the ‘new normal’. After the library closed, it was reopened two months later with a new way of working under the name My Home, My Library. Children can register and borrow up to three books a week to read and study at home. It’s got 175 kids in it.

Sport has also moved on in a different form. Organizing major football tournaments is no longer possible, but in collaboration with Futbalmas, a solution has been devised under the similar name My Home, My Playground.

In the open air, families do weekly fitness exercises. About 20 young people selected by Amani Kibera each have 25 families in their care. In addition to fitness classes, they receive so-called life skills sessions via WhatsApp or printed paper, including personal hygiene and positive behaviour.

‘This has increased our scope’, says Mariam Twahir. ‘The tournaments were only for young people, now 550 families have signed up. The parents love it, considering the videos they share via social media. Moreover, the group leaders gain a lot of experience in guiding, which is a learning curve for them. They feel very involved and share information with each other.’

So actually, corona is also driving innovation here? Jared Ontita nods: ‘Pretty much. We had to dig deep and see what we could do, within the new boundaries, but well succeeded, we think.’

The three see that grassroots organisations such as Amani Kibera enjoy an advantage in crisis like this. Ooko sums it up in a nice sense: ‘A friend of mine always says that international aid organizations work from home in this crisis and grassroots organizations like ours at home.’

They think it is a missed opportunity that the big players in this crisis often chose to go through the Kenyan government, which has a bad reputation for corruption and does not know the situation on the ground in districts like Kibera. ‘I think organisations like ours could have been called on a lot more’, says Ooko.

‘We offer tailor-made support, because we know the families. Not everyone has a problem with food. Some people have problems with rent or with health care. You don’t need food aid if you have your own garden, but you do have problems with the rent. I think you should let people choose what kind of support they need. Tailor-made help is not only more effective, but guarantees the dignity of people.’

Amani Kibera hopes to receive even more income from her own community in the coming years, thinking in addition to crowdfunding to setting up social enterprises whose profits are used for the projects. You can think of a cybercafé in Kibera and showers and toilets for a small fee. Because, the importance of food with the local community is the most important lesson Amani Kibera has learned from the crisis.

Ontita sums it up: ‘We now know even more than before that the solution in our work lies with the community. If you look at our innovations in this period, these are all local ideas. You have to pick it up and develop it together with the community.

We shouldn’t leave her behind. You can see in local organizations that they are reaching a point where they are getting more and more contacts with foreign donors. People in the community usually forget them first.

‘If you want to be successful, you have to continue working together with the community and involve them in the projects from the outset, right up to the end. All the programs we do are composed by the community. It’s essential to know what they have to say.’

Pictures: Jimmie Nicks


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