While we eat lunch in a packed restaurant — one I suddenly realize has only one door — Salim Mohamed explains why his eyes are bouncing.
“All I can think about in here is, ‘Where are all the exits?’” he says.
Mohamed grew up in a crowded orphanage in a Nairobi slum.
Through the odd story he slips into our usually fun conversations I have gathered it was a painful experience that he does not fully share without reason.
With his searching eyes, however, he has never so clearly illustrated how much it defines him as now.
He explains that he instinctively looks for doors when he enters a busy room, in case he needs to get out. My mind imagines myself as a child in an orphanage in a Kenyan slum. Indeed, the first instinct that comes to mind is finding a door.
But as I watch his eyes, I feel slightly ashamed.
When I visit Kibera, the slum where Mohamed works as executive director of Carolina for Kibera, an NGO he co-founded in 2000, my eyes similarly scan the horizon for escape paths.
In the slum, I can no longer escape how tough life is for residents — part of that so-called “bottom billion” you hear about if you really try, who live in the world’s shadow cities, unseen and unheard, yet form part of a structure that places people like me at the top.
Ever so slight that it may be, I get an immediate urge to run back to my comfortable ignorance.
I search for the exit.
But if ever I did run, I know I would see Mohamed, running the other way.
He knows the easy door out — either the one he sought in the orphanage or the one out of Kibera — leads only to another tough situation and the search for yet another door.
Leaving is not the answer. Community is, he says. So is leadership and self-reliance. He works to build it.
When you meet Mohamed, a 31-year-old with an almost magical ability to put you at ease, it is easy to forget his dark past.
There is no hidden chip, just his infectious laugh and the kindness that comes when a person has rightly decided the world does not owe them anything.
But understanding why someone who has come from a slum — having already found his exit — has returned to help others requires the full story.
When he was a year old, his mother put him in a cardboard box and abandoned him to his grandmother, who hawked vegetables on the streets of Nairobi. She was later arrested, and Mohamed, along with his two sisters, was placed in the hands of the Kenyan government.
That meant childhood in the cramped Mama Fatima orphanage in Mathare, which owns the sobriquet of being Nairobi’s toughest slum. It meant sleeping four to a bed, competing with more than 115 others for every morsel of food, going to school hungry.
“Survival teaches you how to appreciate the little things, and that you don’t want this for your children,” says Mohamed. “It teaches you to look for the exits. Now, in my life, what I want to do is sacrifice.”
In 2000, he did just that.
Aged 24 at the time, he had already achieved more than anyone could rightly dream of considering his disadvantageous beginnings.
By 12, he was organizing soccer teams in the slum’s sports association, which also forms its community development arm. By 18, he its first youth-executive chairman. And by his early 20s he was managing a $100,000 budget.
Then he left it all to do something harder.
With the prodding of an American development student from Harvard, he left Mathare to start Carolina for Kibera. The idea was to create an organization that uses sport and dialogue — just like the NGO he was leaving — to build community.
He has subsequently helped countries like Ghana, Nigeria and Gambia start similar programs, on his own time.
The move was not easy. He received two death threats. Organizations comfortable in their methods (or their mediocrity) found Carolina for Kibera to be a threat.
But building community is the only solution for a place like Kibera, he says.
Where he hopes to build it is now a mishmash of poverty, hopelessness, with a box of dynamite labeled “tribalism” sitting in the corner waiting to explode once again.
Kibera went to tribal war with itself during a post-election meltdown that forever bruised the myth of Kenya being the land of ‘Hakuna matata’ (No problems).
During the fighting Mohamed’s office remained untouched. Not one window was broken or firebomb was thrown at it. Carolina for Kibera has earned a piece of permanence in an otherwise transient, rootless place.
The group organizes soccer leagues for youth, with teams made up of players from separate tribes.
It holds community mediation meetings where people talk frankly about ethnicity.
It has voluntary counseling and testing facilities for HIV and AIDS.
And it also organizes community events, like sewer cleaning, where residents remove garbage clogging the slum’s hand-dug sewers and in turn reduce the water-borne diseases that still claim so many young lives.
I participated in one Kibera garbage day and confronted Mohamed’s dilemma.
Some men and women bent down and picked up garbage for two hours without a word. Others complained they had not received the free T-shirt they had been promised and just stood there, refusing to work.
“When somebody is poor and is just given something, then you create a lazy community,” he says.
Kibera, in many ways, is the downtrodden Mecca for NGOs, which arrive hoping to improve lives but, in doing so, indirectly create a dependency culture.
This is where Mohamed’s dark past allows gives him wisdom.
He does not hand people anything.
Instead, if someone gives back to their community, Carolina for Kibera offers them training to further build their leadership.
“At the home we had to fight to survive. In life, you have to struggle. This is what I am taking to Kibera,” he says.
The next exit?
A sacrifice for the entire continent of Africa.
“The way I see myself is how can people use me to initiate similar programs in their countries?” he says.
Tim Querengesser is a former Yukon News reporter now writing in Africa.