Back when I was a kid growing up in the 80s in Glendale, Arizona, our parents entertained us by enrolling us in various programs offered by the Parks and Recreation department of the city. We did softball and swimming during the summer and soccer in the fall. There were summer programs in arts and crafts, and I distinctly remember wearing fluorescent pink, orange, and green scarves for a talent show where we sang and danced along to the latest Whitney Houston hit. All of these activities kept us busy and physically healthy, taught us teamwork, and encouraged us to learn in creative and unique ways. And all of these activities were subsidized by a city that sought to provide ways for its citizens of all ages to feel like they were a part of the city and to feel connected to each other.
Of course, most people idealize their childhood, but I know that early engagement in the parks and recreation department is one of the ways to lay a foundation for a decent and engaged citizenry, and this engagement lies outside of cultural or ethnic difference. Non-profit entities like the YMCA or the Boys and Girls Club have also seen the potential of “play,” and it’s a common occurrence in churches and other non-governmental institutions to keep young people busy in sports and recreation. Across the US and in the developed world, providing productive activities outside of traditional education has been a proven method to produce well-rounded, active, and engaged young people.
The reality in nascent urban spaces in the global south looks very different. Play is not something that is considered a right – especially as post-independent governments have squandered money for civic services. Cities, especially those in Africa, lack neighborhood playing fields and other city-sponsored youth activities. The worst hit by poor planning are the informal settlements that grew in leaps and bounds as rural people sought fortune or exposure or modernity and converged in unplanned spaces. Many thought (or wished) that this migration was temporary – but even now in 2011, Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, has seen continued growth rates that exceed any attempts to make decent, low-cost housing affordable – or public spaces that promote the idea of an urban community. Due to a variety of political and economic reasons, the majority of young Nairobians are now experiencing childhoods where the only place to play or learn is on dirt fields fringed with trash and in environments of heightened insecurity.
The Kibera slum/informal settlement/neighborhood – located near enough to the city centre and industrial area to remain a popular stopping point for new migrants – is one such space where the basic need to play is limited. Most non-governmental organizations working there have highlighted the important sectors of health, sanitation, or housing as ways to alleviate some of the major problems of unplanned settlements. However, little is being done to work on and build an urban citizenry. The ethnically diverse community still finds it difficult to feel like they are part of the city on the whole since the land where they live is deemed illegal. Stereotypes of who a Kiberan is continue to further marginalize the slum from its more affluent neighbors.
When I first entered Kibera more than five years ago to begin research to understand this kind of marginalization and its effects on urban culture, I immediately noticed two things. The first was that it did not match the images I had seen of such communities in popular media – surprisingly, many people there were busy, productive, and surviving. The houses were certainly ugly and small, the streets were filled with sewage and trash, and the environment was generally hazardous, but the energy of people living there was lively. Many times it has crossed my mind as I wander through Kibera’s pathways that this is a place where people are waiting to launch – meaning they have skills and desire but lack opportunity to grow. The second thing I noticed was that there was an alarming lack of spaces for young people to play or congregate. Young men and women – missing opportunity and structure – spent their time idling around bus stops or other informal public space. I learned that this often led to their introduction to illegal brew and drugs, gambling, and even crime. Youth unemployment has also been a major contributor to the ongoing ethnic violence seen in Kibera. Younger children, too, had no place to go to be active – choosing to play on trash piles and near pit latrines and open sewers. Football is an avenue that has been popularly shared as a means to address ethnic conflict and youth idleness – but outside the football clubs there are few avenues to be active, to learn, or to participate. Neighborliness exists in part because low-income people depend a great deal on each other to meet basic needs, but citizenship and the feeling that Kibera is part of something bigger is largely absent. Public parks, playing fields and community centres are important spaces that have been left out of Kibera’s development.
The Eagle Project through the Initiative for Community Action – a community-based organization located deep within Kibera – is one enterprise seeking to create a public and safe space for young people to grow up thinking and dreaming of a world beyond Kibera’s poor sanitation and sub-standard housing. There are already plans to partner with FilmAid to do screenings of socially-focused films from across Africa, and the organization has already begun to teach courses in technology on their several computers. The Centre also plans to provide after-school programming for local children and build up a library of resources. Additionally, recreational activities like pool, darts or arts and crafts are in the works as a way to pull youth in and then mentor and educate. Its long-term vision is that the Eagle Project will grow into a space the whole community can learn in and participate – from programming for the elderly to basic adult literacy classes to programmes for the whole family. The philosophy of ICA is that long-term engagement and personal connection are two of the most effective methods to create change. In combination with other programming specific to promoting civic participation and pride, ICA has a holistic vision to create well-rounded and active citizens in Kibera.
Below, ICA member Steve Omondi Tush, who teaches ICT classes through the Eagle Project, discusses the activities associated with and importance of our Youth Resource Centre.