Staff Reflection: Putting Community at the Forefront of Scholarship September 7, 2016  by      

By: Jeffrey Okoro, Education Program Officer

This is the entrance to Olympic Primary School, located right down the block from CFK's main office.This is the entrance to Olympic Primary School.

It is arguably the most noteworthy school in Kibera, not only for its towering structure but also for the numerous academic accolades it has won over the years. Many prominent alumni—including the current area Member of Parliament Kenneth Okoth, architect Erick Miseda, and high profile event organizer Fakii Liwali—trace their roots back to Olympic Primary.

Located in Olympic Estate, right down the road from Carolina for Kibera’s main office, the school forms part of what the locals call “Community Gate,” one of the largest entrances to Kibera. The school’s student body is a cultural mosaic of children who come from a vibrant and diverse range of different ethnic, economic, and political backgrounds from both Kibera and other parts of Nairobi. At Olympic, kids can be kids and forget about the challenges of life outside the school gates for 8 hours a day.

Given its proximity to Kibera and its commitment to ethnic cooperation, also one of CFK’s core values, it was a great privilege and opportunity for Carolina for Kibera to be invited to Olympic Primary’s 2016 parents and stakeholders meeting, and for CFK’s Executive Director, Julian Rowa, to serve as the keynote speaker. Julian has been with CFK for the past eight months, and candidly admits that Kibera is a unique community that he still has much to learn about. With his fresh perspective as an outsider, Julian’s keynote speech and interactions with parents and stakeholders garnered a lot of positive interest.

Between Julian’s speech and concerns shared by the parents and community stakeholders at the meeting, attendees emerged with several takeaways:

It takes a village to “raise” an effective student. CFK has always been a community-led organization that does great work. But this is only representing part of the sense of community that we have built over 15 years. We are often portrayed as “serving the community,” with us talking about “what we do” in Kibera. However, to be truly community-led is to shift the discussion to the power that community members have. Community members can ensure that our students strive for opportunities to succeed in life, as well as how we can all create a more cohesive community in light of recent events that have sparked protests in Kibera.

People will tell you what they need, not the other way around. In any setting, professional or casual, it can be easy to assume we know what people’s problems are and impose solutions without actively listening to their situations. Numbers serve an important role in lifting up groups of people, but those numbers are informed by personal experiences—and in order to absorb personal experiences, listening is crucial. I have learned that sharing heartfelt stories can have a profound effect on how others relate with you. People, even absolute strangers, instantly connect through stories.

Speak from both the heart and the mind. Though he has a mind for analysis and risk, much of Julian’s speech focused on his own personal story and how it connects to community building in Kibera. Julian shared a bit about his childhood growing up in the chaotic neighborhood of Jericho—a wild and violent neighborhood in Nairobi with an infamous reputation for drugs, crime, and gangs. With little hope for the future, Julian persevered; he credits his many mentors for helping him find traction in life as a young adult. His story mirrors challenges similar to what many students in Kibera face every day, and the mentorship he received is something we strive to provide—and want to take to the next level—at CFK.

Strive for unity and diversity both inside and outside our own communities. By embracing others’ differences, we can create powerful synergies between ourselves and uplift the spirit of humanity. In an increasingly connected world, we only harm ourselves by viewing life through a tribal lens and isolating ourselves from others. Julian stressed this notion in his speech, saying, “Love, respect and reach out to your neighbors since there’s no telling who you could run to for help. Indeed, you are healthy now but you may find yourself knocking on your neighbor’s door for water.”

Above all, we wish to unite all Kiberans in the effort to uplift our community. To succeed, CFK must engage with the community in transparent and honest dialogues. It can only truly do its best work when the organization and the community are joined together in a common vision as equal partners. In the field of community development, having candid dialogues with local citizens and stakeholders is vital to creating trust and understanding. As the Education Program Officer, my aim is to do that through providing scholarships for and fostering friendships between students. While community engagement and participation has always been a central pillar of our work, pushing it further to include real conversations that are honest, open, and facilitate further consultation is critical to the success of CFK and the community of Kibera.

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