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Choosing opportunity over violence

Kenya, July 30, 2012

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Andie Long/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Two-year-old Annointing Chemuta, whose mother is the youth group's secretary, stands by the fence the young people recently built at a local school to keep kids safer. Photo: Andie Long/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Andie Long/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Hillary Rono, 18, displays the saplings at the tree nursery he and his youth group started. They already have orders from local landscapers. Photo: Andie Long/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Andie Long/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Young men have found new jobs at the brick-making operation started by the Kabango village youth group. Photo: Andie Long/Mercy Corps

Earlier this summer I spent three weeks in Kenya with Mercy Corps colleagues who are implementing an ambitious program called “Yes Youth Can!” (YYC). Led by youth themselves, the initiative aims to create half a million new jobs for young people in Kenya over the next two years, as well as engage them in civic and social efforts in over 15,000 communities in six Kenyan provinces.

Though I spent much of my time in our Nairobi office, where periodic power outages left us tapping away by the florescent glow of laptop screens, I was grateful for the chance to travel to the town of Eldoret in Western Kenya’s Rift Valley (home of many of the world’s legendary long distance runners), to see the program in action.

According to the Kenyan Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, an estimated 75% percent of Kenyans are under 30, and Kenya’s youth unemployment ranks among the highest in the world. Experience has shown that high unemployment, coupled with a large youth demographic, can be a highly volatile mix. Following the disputed presidential elections in December 2007, a surge in violence left 1,500 people dead and another 660,000 others displaced, afraid to return to their homes.

While more than 70 percent of those who engaged in violence were young people, only 5% of Kenyan youth overall took part. According to a recent report undertaken by Mercy Corps, there are several factors that appear to keep youth away from violence: employment (making enough money to satisfy their basic needs), collective action (working together on positive activities, such as community reconstruction projects) and self-help groups (where they learn skills such as leadership and group management). It is these and related findings that underpin our efforts in the Kenya YYC program.

SEE PHOTOS: Young people shape their economic future

In Rift Valley alone there are now over 3,600 youth groups, referred to locally as bunges, who collectively invest in both small businesses and community improvement projects with the Mercy Corps fund they manage. My visit to Eldoret took me to two villages, Cheptiret and Kabongo.

Cheptiret

In Cheptiret I met 18-year-old Hillary Rono and his fellow bunge members. The Cheptiret Youth Bunge decided their first project would be the renovation of the village Chief’s office. The Chief of Eldoret had been working without a dedicated office for the last four years, after the post-election violence destroyed his previous space.

They intend for the area to one day also be a park where community members will bring their kids and relax. Two weeks after my visit, one of the national Kenyan papers, The Star, reported on the official handover ceremony of the chief’s office.

The Cheptiret group next showed me the tree nursery they’ve started on a small piece of land that Hillary’s father lent them. Although Hillary wants to be a social worker when he graduates from university, his present passion is clearly trees. As he told me with a smile, “Trees are what make the environment.”

They have over 3,000 saplings of various species growing in the little nursery, including Bottlebrush, Cyprus, Eucalyptus and Podo (Podocarpus), a native slow-growing shade tree. Local landscapers are already asking the group to set aside saplings for them to buy when they’re ready to be transplanted.

I was impressed not only with the potential of the small nursery, but also by the efficiency with which the group ran it. A windmill pump, built by a local welder, brought groundwater up to irrigate the trees, and a sprinkler system, which Hillary built using old pipes and automotive parts, made it easy for them to water large areas at a time, rather than having to hand-water each group of saplings.

Kabongo

Like Cheptiret, the second bunge I visited had a mixture of community service and income-generating activities underway. After visiting with community leaders, the Kabongo Bunge — 10 women and 15 men — decided to renovate one of the local schools in the village, planting native trees, as well as building a fence around the schoolyard.

The headmaster, Mr. Bundi, told me that they’d had trouble with cows and goats wandering through the school, as well as people on motorbikes taking shortcuts and in some cases even knocking kids over in the playground. The fence is now complete and the saplings are growing strong. For the 120 boys and girls at the school, recess is a safer and more pleasant experience.

Just outside the school I asked if I could photograph the youngest member of the Kabongo Bunge, 2-year-old Anointing, the daughter of bunge secretary Carren Limangura. Carren said she often brings her daughter to the meetings. As the little girl stared back at me with her big brown eyes, I wondered how having her mom as a role model will impact her view of her own leadership abilities and her choices when she grows up.

After visiting the school, we went to see some of the small businesses the group was getting off the ground. In addition to a couple of fish ponds, the largest operation I saw was producing bricks. Four years after post-election violence, many buildings in Rift Valley are still in disrepair, so bricks and other building materials are in high demand.

The group was granted land by a local businessman, and they’ve hired some other local youth to help with the brick production. Our visit was during the hottest part of the day and the young men I saw were hard at work extracting the clay from the ground and coaxing it into rectangular molds, making row upon row of fresh blocks.

Kate Kuto, the 24-year-old youth development coordinator for YYC in Kabongo, herself a member of the Kabongo Bunge, said they expect to be able to turn out around 500 bricks a day, with an average yield of around 10,000 a year. They sell the bricks for KSH 8-10 (a few cents apiece). She said they have plans to expand their brick making activities as well as diversify into other areas — such as raising chickens and selling the eggs.

After the visits, the Mercy Corps team and I piled back into our vehicle and bounced along deeply rutted roads to the Eldoret office for lunch and a special goodbye event for one of the regional program managers. Delicious food, energetic music, dancing and speech-making followed, after which it was time to head back to the airport for the short flight to Nairobi.

I was grateful for the experience to meet so many amazing people, and inspired by the dedication the Mercy Corps Eldoret field team have to their work. Their efforts are planting the seeds of a better future for Kenyan youth. Hopefully, this will also mean a more peaceful election cycle in 2013.