Kennedy Odede writes: Terrorism is a global reality, and for me as a Kenyan, this struck close to home in September with the siege of the Westgate mall. Yet in many ways, growing up in Nairobi I was always in the midst of terror. As a boy living in extreme poverty in Kibera, one of Africa’s largest slums, I learned early on that I was disposable, that human life is not equally valued. Life expectancy in Kibera is estimated at 30 years, compared with 64 in the rest of Kenya and 70 worldwide. In Kibera, people are desensitized to death. Living is understood to be the exception.
I am 29 years old — on the threshold of a new decade of life. All my close friends from childhood, save for two, were robbed of this experience. Some took risks to feed their families; for stealing bread or charcoal, they were shot by the police. Others, who worked for as little as $1 per day, fell from construction sites or burned in factory fires. Still others perished in the violence after the 2007 election. Violence and loss became part of day-to-day life.
These are more than singular tragedies; they contribute to the psyche of being poor. This psyche inculcates hopelessness, dispels a belief in the possibility of tomorrow’s being better than today, compels a resignation to the fact that you may suffer the same tragic fate as your peers, and fuels anger because there is no escape and you did not choose this — you simply drew life’s short straw.
This, perhaps, is terrorism’s fertile ground. Because if you grew up as I did, self-protection requires coming to terms with violence and terror. Violence becomes a vehicle of survival. My friend Boi was 16 when he joined a gang with the goal of supporting his mother and sister. If stealing or fighting was the only way, he was ready. In the end, he was shot dead.
An environment in which you cannot get a job despite ability, ambition and persistence fosters anger. My friend James and I used to leave the slum together each morning to look for work as day laborers. We always hoped we’d be lucky, only to be told “not today” — day after day after day. Then one day, James and I got construction jobs. While carrying heavy stones, two of James’s fingers were crushed. He was not compensated and was out of work for more than two years. Later, James caught another break and got a job as a security guard at an upper-class estate. The estate was robbed, and James was fired and never paid.
Something broke in James. In the constant degradation he saw that for people like us there was no justice. He joined a local group infamous for terrorizing the community, robbing and stealing. James was ready to die, willing to do anything to provide what he could for his family. Today, this world of violence and uncertainty remains his reality.
News reports inform us that Kenya’s slums are ripe for terrorist recruitment. No one is born a terrorist. But being paid a reported $1,000 to undergo militant training in Somalia is more than enough financial incentive; the young people in Nairobi’s slums are accustomed to taking risks that pay far less. [Continue reading…]