I like to talk about the psychological lack of care you find in slum environments viz the sanitation issues, inhumane living conditions, poverty challenges, and acts of government corruption. These things give you every reason to lose hope and resign from participating in your life constructively and morally. What's the point when so many challenges are stacked up against you?

This creates a vicious cycle. When people stop caring, their environment gets worse because they don't feel inspired to take care of it. When the environment gets worse, you have even less reason to care and so on, until something hits a breaking point.

How do you inspire people to care when they have every reason not to?

Crime as Coping Strategy

Kitui Ndogo is a slum near the city center of Nairobi, Kenya where we built 1,000 ft. of drainage trenches last year that solved a hazardous, open sewer situation that was endangering the lives of 6,000 people.

Sanitation is just one of the many challenges there. The slum also has thousands of children not receiving any education, ensuring future generations of poverty, and it also deals with significant crime related issues.

Crime (robberies mostly) in this area, by in large, stems from lack of education, lack of employment, a family to feed, and little hope that circumstances will improve. It is a systemic issue, more than a personal one.

I'm not sure what I would do if I'm living in a filthy slum, in a tiny room with several family members, eating once or twice in a day, and on the receiving end of corruption from the same government ministers who are supposed to be helping me out. Crime becomes an act of desperation when survival is threatened and the human spirit breaks.

In most cases, individual punishment as a means of rehabilitation, will not work out because you are not addressing the root cause of what caused the perpetrator to do what he or she did.

Something to Believe In

I didn't know this at the time but our drainage trenches were constructed by a few members of a criminal gang in Kitui Ndogo—a gang being watched by the police and targeted for recruitment by the terrorist group Al-Shabaab. As it turns out, the project radically transformed the lives of these individuals.

Chryspin Afifu, my project partner from the NGO, CEPACET, writes:

“This project became an eye opener. The youths collectively yearned for a decent livelihood free from danger. They realized Kitui Ndogo was their home and they must participate actively in keeping it clean. The frequent meetings they held to discuss about the trenches they dug bound them together ... and a number of circumstances weighed down upon them to rethink their lives.”

Jared Akama Ondieki, Exec. Director of CEPACET, writes:

“The project has addressed the issue of crime by creating employment for the criminal gang in the area. The residents decided to give 10 shillings/household to the youths in the gang to clean the trenches. By creating employment like this, those who were involved in the cleaning of the trenches, have left crime. They now envision to expand their efforts and include others.”

In other words, this project, which had a very special spirit to it, inspired the members of the gang — youths involved in crime, youths being targeted by police and a notorious terrorist group for recruitment — to care.

They ended up taking charge of the daily maintenance and cleanliness of the trenches, which led to residents paying them for their work. With this new inspiration, desire to serve, and steady income, the members had more than enough reasons to give up their criminal ways.

The sewage project gave these individuals a meaningful story to believe in — despite their environmental and financial challenges — which is exactly what's needed if we are interested in real rehabilitation and transformation.

And just so you know, none of us who were involved with the conceiving of the project, could have imagined this happening. It's one of those "ripple effects" I talk about or unexpected goodness.

Generation Know Yourself (G-Jue)

  Members of G Jue at work in Kitui Ndogo.

Members of G Jue at work in Kitui Ndogo.

The former members of the gang (some pictured above, cleaning one of the trenches) call their new group G-Jue. G stands for generation and Jue means know yourself in Kiswahili.

It's a name I might have recommended if I were in Nairobi but I had nothing to do with it. It's an astounding choice of terms, I thought, considering where these guys (and some gals) come from.

G-Jue will no doubt be involved with the construction of the Malezi School, the next project we have planned for this community. They will serve as role models and mentors for all the students we expect to graduate, demonstrating you do not need to choose lives of crime and that you can still care when there are many reasons not to.

This spirit, we believe, will begin to transform Kitui Ndogo, sustainably, from the inside-out over time.

On the grassroots level, we can't fully solve the reality of living in poverty and the limitations that creates. However, we can shift the attitude and belief systems around it, which, arguably, is the more important — definitely more challenging — task.

With a shift in attitude and character, you leave room for the individual to find their own solution for improving their own circumstances.

Continue to next update about G-Jue.