By Phares Mutembei
Timothy Challen, who was on a working visit to Kenya six years ago, nearly never made it back to Geneva, his workstation.
The UN Federal Credit Union worker had envisaged a good time in Kenya as the plane touched down at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Though he was here to open new offices and train staff at the UN offices at Gigiri, he knew the visit also offered opportunity to sample Kenya’s beauty.
Yet the Briton vividly recalls an incidence that nearly put paid to his illustrious career at the UN agency. The clarity and vividness with which he talks of the incident shows how it impacted him. Kilimanajaro Initiative provides young people with opportunities to enable them take on constructive roles in the society
Kilimanajaro Initiative provides young people with opportunities to enable them take on constructive roles in the society
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"After a hard day’s work at different venues in Nairobi, a few of my colleagues and I decided to relax at a residence in Westlands that evening," he recalls. The evening was cut short when robbers descended on them. They didn’t even have time to escape or call for help.
"Without any provocation one of them shot me just below the left knee. The bullet lodged inside and exploded shattering the bone," says Challen.
This was followed by endless trips to hospitals in Switzerland, where he underwent physiotherapy.
"I spent a year on crutches and rehabilitation," he reminisces.
Visions of poverty
The thugs were arrested and this meant that he had to come to Kenya for the countless court appearances at the Kibera Law Courts. Driving through Kibera, he was touched by the face of poverty.
"I clearly saw what could drive a young man to crime," he says.
He resolved to do something to help the young people exposed to such lives and this marked the birth of Kilimanjaro Initiative (KI), an organisation that raised funds for youth and community-based projects in Kenya and Tanzania.
"This I knew would help reduce the number of young people getting into crime," he says.
Challen can today look back and marvel at the changes taking place in Kibera, once a scary enclave of petty and armed thugs. He could have chosen to give a crime-infested Kenya and the region a wide berth after what had happened to him but Challen did not.
KI is now addressing urban violence. Mohamed Abdulahi was once a feared person in Kibera. Those who crossed his path especially under the cover of darkness at Darajani in Kibera talk of his ruthlessness. Yet, a beneficiary of KI, he is the organising secretary of Youth-Reformed Self-Help Group.
"My father died when I was four years old and couldn’t continue with my education because of fees," he recalls. He was soon initiated into the world of crime and quickly rose through the ranks to become a feared hardcore thug.
"We had ‘black spots’ where we waylaid our victims, including foreigners. Once, we even robbed a soldier," he recounts.
Sometimes, his gang dressed like schoolboys to deceive their intended victims. Mohamed reveals that the criminals were organised, adept at what they did best — rob.
"In Kibera we knew each other, even residents knew us by name but kept their mouths shut lest we paid them a visit," he says. Though different gangs operated in the area, they knew each other and networked.
In 2005, Mohamed met Felix Oduor a Kibera resident and coordinator of programmes at the KI.
"He told me how life as a criminal would not help me. In addition, the organisation offered us a way out of crime," he says. Collins Ochieng explains how the campaign has helped him.
Collins Ochieng explains how the campaign has helped him.
Today he is part of a garbage collection service in the estate and this has given him an opportunity to earn ‘clean’ money. They also have a sanitation facility that residents use for a small fee. Mohammed and his group now positively interact with members of the community and their activities are helping reduce crime.
Judy Waithera, also from Kibera, is a victim of runaway crime in Kibera. She is now the office administrator at KI, and is probably working with the thugs who attacked her then.
"There were instances of attacks, including when they robbed me of possessions, including my mobile phones," she recalls. Once in a while they climb Mt Kilimanjaro in a symbolic move to show determination to overcome every obstacle.
It’s always a journey of courage, discipline, and perseverance. They learn how to work and take care of each other in the three-day climbing experience and the two days of descent.
"The annual climb is preceded by a two-week leadership training camp at Loitokitok," says Judy a single mother of one. One of the highlights is spending 39 hours in solitary confinement with a little water and only an apple for survival.
"The experience gave me the opportunity to take care of myself and engage in soul searching," she recalls. She had to summon courage and perseverance to come through the exercise. All the while they could see the imposing Mt Kilimanjaro in the background.
Another beneficiary of the KI initiative is Esther Aura, a 23-year-old resident of Makongeni estate in Eastlands.
"I am now an electrician and earn some money to support the family. I am not idle anymore," she says proudly.
Involving the slum’s youth in sports activities has been a major component of reaching out to the disillusioned youth.
"We have income generating activities that include selling water and collecting garbage. The City Council has identified sports grounds that we have upgraded to offer venues," says Sadique Bilal who is in charge of Sports facilities in the organisation.
He comes from the Silanga area in Kibera where membership is 50 and more youth are joining.
"Our garbage, water and sanitation business has made us financially independent and we no longer have time to engage in criminal activities," says Bilal.
After the nasty encounter with Nairobi robbers, Challen embarked on a journey to make positive change in Kenya and its neighbours.
"While on the last stages of recuperating in Switzerland, I vowed to return to Africa and climb Mt Kilimanjaro. I not only saw it as a personal goal in my struggle to be fit again, but also as a way to help raise awareness on issues that fuel crime here," he said.
At the height of the post-election violence, 20 youths from Kenya went up to the summit of Africa’s highest peak and waved a peace banner, which they later displayed at national youth crime prevention week in Nairobi.
As the world threatening to reel under momentous climatic changes, youths from the KI have made UN’s UNite to Combat Climate Change another component of its activities.
Challen has been in and out of Kenya a number of times since that attack and achieved a personal milestone in 2006 by completing his debut ascent to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro.
Challenge of a mountain
"I have reached the highest point of the mountain three times since 2006. Each year, I have been accompanied by youths from disadvantaged areas in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as UN workers from New York and other places. Youth play a vital role in the initiative because I recognise that many get sucked into social ills and it is important to provide them with opportunities to reach their dreams in a constructive manner."
The KI group, composed of UN staff and youth from Kenya and its neighbours had their fourth climb of the mountain recently.
The initiative plans to avail more credit facilities to youths, with an aim of economically empowering them and reduce crime.
Benard Ongeso, a beneficiary of the initiative gave a moving account of his induction into crime and reformation.
"I come from Eastlands, a place of runaway crime. But I have been able to experience a transformation. I am now in charge of mobilising youth and educating them that there is more to life than bringing pain to other people," said Benard.
The ascent is replete with difficulties, as would be expected. Going through rocky patches, the rainforests and some really steep sections proved hard but the sense of brotherhood and a desire to overcome spurred them on to the top.
Using a satellite phone, the group made a call to the United Nations Secretary General Secretary Ban Ki-moon to relay news of their successful journey up the treacherous mountain.